Advanced 'Mask' Cyber-Attack Persisted for Seven Years: Kaspersky

A stealthy cyber-attack  known as Careto, or "The Mask," compromised a multitude of companies globally over the past seven years, according to Kaspersky Lab.

A sophisticated cyber-espionage network compromised more than 380 companies, government agencies and organizations in more than 30 countries over the past seven years, according to a research report released by security firm Kaspersky Lab on Feb. 10.

The network is the result of two malware programs: one called Careto—Spanish slang for "the mask"—and the other named SGH that Kaspersky described as APTs (advanced persistent threats.) The pair of programs compromised systems at government institutions, embassies, energy companies and private companies, Kaspersky stated in its analysis.

The use of Spanish slang in the programs and the targets—one-third of infected systems were in Morocco—suggested that the attack may not have originated with the usual suspects, Dmitry Bestuzhev, head of Kaspersky Lab's Latin America research center told eWEEK in an e-mail interview.

"The world used to think that Russia, U.S.A. or China are probably most sophisticated nations in terms of the cyber-attacks; however, now we see that it is a Spanish-speaking country," he said.

Kaspersky designated the attack as the most sophisticated that the company's researchers had seen to date. The company first became aware of the espionage network when the attackers attempted to exploit an old vulnerability in the security firm's product. If it had been successful, the program could have used the exploit to silently infect systems protected by Kaspersky's security software.

The attackers had an extensive toolset, Kaspersky stated in its analysis. In addition to two malware packages designed to infect and control systems, the attack included a rootkit for staying resident on a system and versions for MacOS, Linux, 32-bit and 64-bit Windows. There are even signs of versions for Android and iOS, the company stated.

Careto originally infects a system by convincing a victim to run a malicious file using either spearphishing or possibly a waterhole attack. If the victim's system is compromised, one of three backdoors is installed. The "Careto" software installs files on the system, while the "SGH" component is a backdoor that conducts surveillance on the machine and its communications.

The programs, along with other components, can monitor network traffic, log keystrokes, listen in on Skype conversations, copy encryption keys and monitor file operations, among other capabilities. The malware collects data from almost 50 different file types, including some that Kaspersky could not identify.

Compile times contained in malware that Kaspersky recovered indicated that some of the software had been created as early as 2007, suggesting that the campaign could be at least seven years old.

The Careto cyber-espionage network went silent in January, following Kaspersky's discovery of the malware. Bestuzhev emphasized that the attackers likely have already begun reconstituting the network and may have parallel operations going on at the same time.

"The campaign was cut (short), but the interest of the attackers remains the same, so they are going to make another one and now (can) learn from their mistakes," he said. "This is a certain thing: There are other parallel and still undetected APTs out there."

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...