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Wednesday, 08 April 2020 11:22

Blackberry claims China-connected groups targeting Linux servers Featured

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Blackberry claims China-connected groups targeting Linux servers Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Canadian security software and services firm Blackberry claims five attack groups serving the interests of China have been targeting Linux servers, Windows systems and Android devices for nearly 10 years, remaining undetected in the process.

In a report titled Decade of the RATs, the company said the groups were likely to be made up of civilian contractors who shared common tools and targeting information. While they had in the past had different objectives, the company said it had observed co-ordination, especially when it came to targeting Linux servers.

The report claimed the Blackberry researchers had discovered a previously unidentified Linux malware toolset which included two kernel-level rootkits that made it difficult to identify executables.

The emphasis on Linux in the report was put down to the fact that the open-source operating system runs a big percentage of important servers on the Internet. "Linux runs the stock exchanges in New York, London and Tokyo, and nearly all the big tech and e-commerce giants are dependent on it, including the likes of Google, Yahoo! and Amazon," the report said.

"Most US Government agencies and the Department of Defence also rely heavily on the Linux operating system, and it runs virtually all of the top one-million websites and 75% of all Web servers.

"Linux powers 98% of the world’s most advanced supercomputers, and if you or your organisation stores data in the cloud, you’ll find Linux running in the background more than 75% of the time."

Asked how the various groups gained root access on Linux servers — an aspect that was not touched on in the 46-page report — Blackberry Spark ANZ managing director Jason Duerden replied: "The rootkits were installed by way of an interactive bash script, which in some cases reached out to an online build server to determine particulars about the target system (distro, kernel version, etc) before delivering a bespoke rootkit and backdoor.

"There are several ways in which the installation script could have landed on the server, including brute force SSH attack (a technique reportedly used by the botnet to spread itself), physical access to the server (espionage operations are not always exclusively digital), or any other of the myriad ways in which admin credentials for servers are compromised and then used to log in."

Windows malware that was used by these groups used adware code-signing certificates, a means of getting past red flags as they would be dismissed as one more in a stream of adware alerts.

The five groups were said to be using tooling reminiscent of a well-known group known as WINNTI; the Blackberry team said it had now come to represent more of an approach than a name for any one particular group. Other groups examined were the PASSCV, BRONZE UNION, CASPER (LEAD) and WLNXSPLINTER groups, with the last named being a relatively new actor.

The WINNTI group used malware that resembled the Linux XOR DDoS botnet first seen in September 2014 - leading the researchers to assume that the group was behind this botnet.

Other characteristics noted were the common use of various tools, leading to the conclusion that the groups were collaborating. One Android implant attributed to PASSCV was similar to NetWire, a commercial penetration testing tool for Android; however, the malware code had been compiled about two years before NetWire was put up for sale.

“Linux is not typically user-facing, and most security companies focus their engineering and marketing attention on products designed for the front office instead of the server rack, so coverage for Linux is sparse” said Eric Cornelius, chief product architect at BlackBerry.

“These APT groups have zeroed in on that gap in security and leveraged it for their strategic advantage to steal intellectual property from targeted sectors for years without anyone noticing.”

Blackberry chief information security officer John McClurg added: “This research paints a picture of an espionage effort targeting the very backbone of large organisations’ network infrastructure that is more systemic than has been previously acknowledged.

“This report opens another chapter in the Chinese IP theft story, providing us with new lessons to learn.”


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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