Two Cyber-Spying Groups Target Middle East Governments, Energy Firms

Separate reports reveal details of two espionage networks focused on the Middle East, one aimed at gathering intelligence and the other focused on infecting energy firms.

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Middle East Cyberspies 2

Two cyber-espionage networks are targeting companies and governments in the Middle East—with one effort attributed to a Lebanese group and the other, less sophisticated campaign targeting energy firms, according to reports released by separate companies.

The first campaign, dubbed "Volatile Cedar" by security firm Check Point Software Technologies, targeted government agencies, defense contractors and other sensitive industries in Israel, Turkey, the United States and even inside Lebanon itself, according to the firm.

The attacks generally start with vulnerability scans of a target's Internet-facing servers to search for exploitable security weaknesses. The compromised server is then used as a beachhead to search out and infect a small number of computers inside the network, Dan Wiley, head of incident response for Check Point, told eWEEK.

While the attackers used custom malware, their tactics were fairly common, although they did use sophisticated techniques for hiding their identities, he said.

"It is more and more evident that it is not just the top-tier players that are in this game," Wiley said. "Anyone with the ability to create malware, can create a sophisticated network for spying."

The other campaign, whose malware is called Trojan.Laziok, targeted a variety of oil-and-gas companies, more than half of which were within the Gulf region of the Middle East, according to an analysis by security firm Symantec. Unlike the Volatile Cedar operation, the group behind Laziok used spam email messages from an open relay to attempt to sneak malware-ladened attachments into a company.

Laziok appears to be the first stage of a larger attack focused on the oil-and-gas industries, with the malware collecting configuration data, including the computer name, installed software and antivirus software. If the system appears to be of interest, then the attackers will send additional commands to further infect the computer and expand their control over the machine.

"The group behind the attack does not seem to be particularly advanced, as they exploited an old vulnerability and used their attack to distribute well-known threats that are available in the underground market," Symantec said in its analysis. "However, many people still fail to apply patches for vulnerabilities that are several years old, leaving themselves open to attacks of this kind."

The more sophisticated operation, Volatile Cedar, did not use spear-phishing, but targeted public-facing servers, searching for vulnerabilities that they could exploit to enter and explore the network. In an attempt to avoid detection, the attackers were very careful to infect only a small number of systems.

The attackers confined "the infection spread to the bare minimum required to achieve the attacker's goal while minimizing the risk of exposure," Check Point's report stated. "Our analysis leads us to believe that the attackers conduct a fair amount of intelligence gathering to tailor each infection to its specific target."

Check Point believes that the operation has been going on since 2012. The first version of the malware used in the operation, named "Explosive" by the malicious tool's creator, appeared in November 2012.

A variety of evidence convinced Check Point researchers that the group behind Volatile Cedar is operating from Lebanon. The original Explosive variant was hosted at a major Lebanese Internet service and, in a failure of operational security, a brief leak of a WHOIS record revealed an email address linked to someone who has publicly supported Lebanon. Finally, the creation times of the malware components are consistent with GMT + 2, the timezone of the country, Check Point’s report stated.

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...