Last weekend, Target finally disclosed at least one cause of the massive data breach that exposed personal and financial information on more than 110 million customers: Malicious software that infected point-of-sale systems at Target checkout counters. Today’s post includes new information about the malware apparently used in the attack, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.
In an interview with CNBC on Jan. 12, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel confirmed that the attackers stole card data by installing malicious software on point-of-sale (POS) devices in the checkout lines at Target stores. A report published by Reuters that same day stated that the Target breach involved memory-scraping malware.
This type of malicious software uses a technique that parses data stored briefly in the memory banks of specific POS devices; in doing so, the malware captures the data stored on the card’s magnetic stripe in the instant after it has been swiped at the terminal and is still in the system’s memory. Armed with this information, thieves can create cloned copies of the cards and use them to shop in stores for high-priced merchandise. Earlier this month, U.S. Cert issued a detailed analysis of several common memory scraping malware variants.
Target hasn’t officially released details about the POS malware involved, nor has it said exactly how the bad guys broke into their network. Since the breach, however, at least two sources with knowledge of the ongoing investigation have independently shared information about the point-of-sale malware and some of the methods allegedly used in the attack.
On Dec. 18, three days after Target became aware of the breach and the same day this blog broke the story, someone uploaded a copy of the point-of-sale malware used in the Target breach to ThreatExpert.com, a malware scanning service owned by security firm Symantec. The report generated by that scan was very recently removed, but it remains available via Google cache (Update, Jan. 16, 9:29 a.m.: Sometime after this story ran, Google removed the cached ThreatExpert report; I’ve uploaded a PDF version of it here).
According to a source close to the investigation, that threatexpert.com report is related to the malware analyzed at this Symantec writeup (also published Dec. 18) for a point-of-sale malware strain that Symantec calls “Reedum” (note the Windows service name of the malicious process is the same as the ThreatExpert analysis –“POSWDS”). Interestingly, a search in Virustotal.com — a Google-owned malware scanning service — for the term “reedum” suggests that this malware has been used in previous intrusions dating back to at least June 2013; in the screen shot below left, we can see a notation added to that virustotal submission, “30503 POS malware from FBI”.
The source close to the Target investigation said that at the time this POS malware was installed in Target’s environment (sometime prior to Nov. 27, 2013), none of the 40-plus commercial antivirus tools used to scan malware at virustotal.com flagged the POS malware (or any related hacking tools that were used in the intrusion) as malicious. “They were customized to avoid detection and for use in specific environments,” the source said.
That source and one other involved in the investigation who also asked not to be named said the POS malware appears to be nearly identical to a piece of code sold on cybercrime forums called BlackPOS, a relatively crude but effective crimeware product. BlackPOS is a specialized piece of malware designed to be installed on POS devices and record all data from credit and debit cards swiped through the infected system.
According the author of BlackPOS — an individual who uses a variety of nicknames, including “Antikiller” — the POS malware is roughly 207 kilobytes in size and is designed to bypass firewall software. The barebones “budget version” of the crimeware costs $1,800, while a more feature-rich “full version” — including options for encrypting stolen data, for example — runs $2,300.