The attack, analyzed by researchers from antivirus firm Bitdefender, shows that cyberespionage groups don't necessarily need to invest a lot of money in developing unique and powerful malware programs to achieve their goals. In fact, the use of publicly available tools designed for system administration can increase an attack's efficiency and makes it harder for security vendors to detect it and link it to a particular threat actor.
The Bitdefender researchers have dubbed the newly discovered attack group Netrepser and traced back some of its attack campaigns to May 2016. The group is still active, but to Bitdefender's knowledge its attacks have never been publicly documented before, which might be in part because its campaigns are highly targeted.
After analyzing the way in which Netrepser's command-and-control server assigns unique tracking IDs to infections, the Bitdefender researchers believe that the attack group has compromised around 500 computers to date. The vast majority of those systems belong to government agencies and organizations, indicating that Netrepser's goal is cyberespionage, not financially motivated cybercrime.
Bitdefender declined to disclose the countries whose government agencies have been targeted, but some of the spear-phishing emails sent by the cyberespionage group contained malicious Microsoft Office documents with Russian names and text. This doesn't necessarily limit attacks to Russia, because the Russian language is used in many former Soviet Union member countries.
The rogue documents had malicious macros embedded in them and contained instructions for users to allow the execution of that code. This is a common malware distribution technique that has been used in many attacks over the past few years.
The malware's modules are actually free tools used by system administrators. For example, Netrepser downloads and installs the WinRAR archiving utility, which it then uses to compress and password-protect stolen information before extracting it from an infected computer.
It also uses several utilities developed by a company called NirSoft, including its Email Password Recovery and IM Password Recovery tools. These tools can be used to recover forgotten passwords, but Netrepser uses them to steal account credentials from email and instant messaging applications.
Another NirSoft tool, called WebBrowserPassView, is used to extract passwords stored inside browsers, while the sdelete utility that's part of the Windows Sysinternals package is used to securely wipe files.
The Netrepser malware can also download and install a keylogger and steal files stored on the computer. Ultimately, it has all the features that one would expect to find in a malware program designed for information theft.
While the NirSoft programs are not inherently malicious, they've been abused by cybercriminals in the past, so many antivirus and security programs detect them as potentially risky applications. To avoid such detections, the Netrepser attackers modify the utilities before deploying them by using a custom binary packing technique that the Bitdefender researchers haven't seen before.
"By relying on readily-available tools for high-level cyber espionage, the threat actor behind Netrepser not only minimized its development and operational costs, but also made sure that the attack cannot be attributed to known threat actors or nation states," said Bogdan Botezatu, a senior e-threat analyst at Bitdefender, via email.
Moreover, even if one of these tools is detected on a system, the organization's security team might dismiss the alert as a false positive or a case where an administrator or user attempted to troubleshoot an IT issue, rather than a serious malware incident that needs investigating, Botezatu said.
Over the past year there's also been a wave of attacks that heavily rely on PowerShell, a powerful scripting language built into Windows that's used to automate system administration tasks.
The use of standard Windows utilities and third-party dual-use tools like Meterpreter and Mimikatz in attacks is also increasingly common. Documents leaked in March by WikiLeaks also showed that well-funded intelligence agencies like the CIA intentionally repurpose bits of open-source code in their cyber operations and even techniques and components from known malware. Such false flag operations are intended to throw malware analysts on false leads and complicate attribution efforts.