Cyber-Security Experts View Petya Malware as Nation-State Attack

The Ukrainian government and NATO experts consider the NotPetya ransomware attack to be linked to a nation-state, with Ukraine blaming the Russian Federation. Other experts are not convinced.

Malware 2017

Two separate European security authorities have concluded that the widespread Petya ransomware attack, also known as NonPetya, was not about money, but rather an assault conducted by a nation-state.

On June 30, four researchers at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCD COE) attributed both NotPetya and its predecessor, WannaCry, “most likely … to a state actor.”

While the group did not identify the source of the attack, a second analysis by the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) placed the blame on the Russian Federation.

“The infection was planned and implemented in advance,” the SBU said in the translated statement. “It took place in several stages and started on the eve of the national public holiday… [t]he virus is the cover of a large-scale attack directed towards Ukraine. This is evidenced by the lack of a real mechanism for taking possession of funds, the primacy of which only confirms the notion that enrichment was not the purpose of the attack.”

On June 27, security firms around the world started reporting a massive attack, which started in Ukraine and spread to more than 60 countries worldwide. The attack started with a Ukrainian tax software maker, whose software updates were apparently compromised, according to an analysis by Microsoft. The ransomware quickly attacked more than 12,500 systems in the country, before spreading elsewhere.

Despite the analyses by NATO and the SBU, attributing the attack to a nation-state may be premature, Adam Kujawa, director of malware intelligence for anti-malware software maker Malwarebytes, told eWEEK.

While the focus on the Ukraine, the initial infection vectors and the lack of public claims of attribution suggest a nation-state attack, the malware itself is not as polished as previous attacks and there is no clear motive, he said.

“[C]learly based on the facts around the malware, this appears state-sponsored, while the focus on the malware itself makes it seem like it was made by a criminal who just wanted to smash together as much malware as possible and see what would happen,” he said.

“This is a very unique situation we are in at the moment. While attribution itself has always been difficult, this goes beyond just ‘who did it’ but ‘why did they do it?’ which is rarely a question we have to think about in this industry,” Kujawa said.

The ransomware attack—known to different groups as Petya.A, NotPetya and Nyetya — appears to be a variant of an older program, known as Petya that erases the master boot record (MBR) from victims' computers in a manner similar to the latest attack.

NotPetya infected networks through a compromised update from a Ukranian tax software firm, MeDoc, as well as through a compromised Web site for a Ukrainian city, according to security firm Kryptos Logic.

Once it infected a machine inside the firewall, the attack uses several methods—including the EternalBlue exploit for a flaw in the Windows implementation of SMB Version 1—to quickly compromise other systems, the company said in an analysis. EternalBlue was also used by the WannaCry ransomware to infect systems.

“[I]f you have a single PC which is not patched against ETERNALBLUE or [which] fall[s] victim to a watering hole attack and it contains a system with shared domain credentials active within your Active Directory environment, it is plausible this could result in a massive compromise of the local network regardless if even if all of the rest of the PCs are up to date and patched,” the Kryptos Logic analysis stated.

In addition to EternalBlue, NotPetya also spreads inside networks via EternalRomance—another exploit for an SMB version 1 flaw in Windows—as well as the PsExec administrative tool and the Windows Management Instrumentation component, both of which are legitimate Windows utilities.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...