Attackers Using New Tool to Exploit Reporters, Rights Workers in Asia

Arbor Networks, which looks at some recent spear-phishing campaigns and finds some common threads, reveals the tactics and technologies the attackers are using.

spear-phishing campaigns

Attackers are likely using a new tool to build phishing malware campaigns against reporters and human rights activities across Asia, according to security firm Arbor Networks. In a new report about the tool, dubbed the Four-Element Sword Engagement, Arbor reveals the tactics and technologies the attackers are employing.

Arbor concluded that at least 12 attack scenarios were being employed with different forms of phishing in order to deliver malware payloads.

"Threat actors with what appears to be a Chinese origin have been targeting Tibetans, journalists in Hong Kong, and human rights workers in Taiwan and across Asia," Curt Wilson, senior research analyst at Arbor Networks, told eWEEK.

Wilson noted that the attackers are using the Four-Element Sword Engagement, or four key elements to generate exploit code that builds malicious documents that are then sent in a targeted phishing attack (spear-phishing) to targets of interest. The malicious documents drop malware payloads that will then eavesdrop or otherwise collect information from the victim's computer.

"Spying on journalists and human rights workers can have serious consequences," Wilson said. "These threats to civilized society are definitely a concern, not just for people defending networks."

What's not entirely clear from the report is how wide the impact is from the Four-Element Sword Engagement. Wilson noted that he didn't know precisely how many people were actually exploited by the attack.

The Four-Element Sword Engagement gets its name from the four primary vulnerabilities that are exploited, CVE-2012-0158, CVE-2012-1856, CVE-1641 and CVE-2015-1770. These vulnerabilities are known issues that Microsoft has already patched, and as such, any organization running a fully up-to-date Windows system will have less risk of being exploited.

"Sometimes when dealing with organizations, like those in Tibet, there are limited resources for IT security," Wilson said. "Clearly, the attackers are throwing those exploits at targets because they think they will have some success."

Attackers are also finding success, thanks to the immediate contextual relevance of the spear-phishing topics used. For example, one of the attacks outlined by Arbor Networks is called the Sixteen Drops of Kadam Empowerment, which uses a legitimate looking document, based on content that was posted on the Central Tibetan Administration's Website on Dec. 31. According to Arbor Networks, the spear-phishing campaign started the same day the content was loaded on the Tibetan Website.

Wilson noted that the term "Four-Element Sword Builder" is a bit of conjecture based on analysis. By way of Arbor's analysis of multiple malware samples, researchers were able to find enough code similarity to infer that a single tool was used.

"I found enough code that had similar characteristics, using the four exploits or a combination of them, so there was enough similarity to imply there is a builder infrastructure behind it," Wilson said.

Multiple open-source tools are freely available that attackers or security researchers can use to build phishing and malware campaigns. However, as far as Wilson could tell, there was no known overlap between the Four Element Sword Builder with any tools of which he was aware.

"[Four-Element Sword Builder] looks like something unique and distinct to me," Wilson said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.