Shamoon Malware Targets Energy Firms, Possibly Saudis

The same day a Saudi oil company announces it's been attacked, antivirus firms release an analysis of a program called Shamoon that is deleting corporate data at different energy firms.

A limited number of energy companies have been targeted with a destructive virus-dubbed Shamoon-that spreads through shared network drives and deletes important data from computers.

The virus, which some are calling Disstrack, has destroyed data belonging to at least one energy firm, according to an analysis published Aug. 16 by security firm Symantec. Reports of the program came a day after a major Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco, announced that a virus had destroyed data in its network, but antivirus firms declined to comment on whether the firm was the source of their malware samples.

The virus is likely the digital version of a clean-up crew for a separate attack, but its simplistic programming does not resemble previous programs aimed at governments in the region, such as Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame, said Liam O Murchu, manager of operations for Symantec's security response group.

"I think the fact that it appears to have been targeted is quite interesting," he said, adding: "But it looks like something that is quite simple and quite quick to code, so it falls into a different category in my mind."

Over the past several years, experts have increasingly outed and studied the offensive programs designed to gather intelligence on companies, non-governmental organizations, and nations. Following Google's 2010 complaints over Chinese hackers in its network, China's information espionage has become a recurring theme. However, nations have developed their own cyber-operations capabilities, including the United States, which reportedly admitted to developing the Stuxnet attack responsible for sabotaging and delaying Iran's nuclear processing efforts.

Shamoon may not be of the same ilk as previous attacks. While the malware resembles another destructive attack on Iranian government agencies that led to the discovery of the Flame espionage Trojan, there are significant technical differences between the two attacks, wrote an analyst with security software firm Kaspersky Lab.

"It is more likely that this is a copycat, the work of script kiddies inspired by the story," the analysis states. "Nowadays, destructive malware is rare; the main focus of cyber-criminals is financial profit. Cases like the one here do not appear very often."

Shamoon replaces all the files in specific folders on infected machines, overwriting the content with data from a corrupted image, according to multiple analyses by security firms. The virus focuses on user files, configuration files and system data, according to the analysis. The program then deletes the master boot record, which contains critical information that computers need to reboot.

The program then communicates its actions back to an intermediate server. While most attack programs communicate with a command-and-control server on the Internet, the fact that Shamoon sends reports to a computer on the internal network suggests that the attackers have already compromised the victim's internal systems, said Aviv Raff, chief technology officer for security firm Seculert.

The only reason for architecting the program that way is to get around defenses.

"This is another strong case for saying that the companies which were targeted were those whose machines had important information on them and were not connected directly to the Internet," said Raff.

For the most part, other companies do not need to worry about Shamoon, as the attacks appear to be targeted at a very limited number of companies, according to the Kaspersky analysis.

"So far, there are only two (other) reports, both from China, which appear to be security researchers," according to Kaspersky. "So we can conclude that the malware is not widespread and it was probably only used in very focused targeted attacks."

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...