Online Espionage: Mikko Hypponen at SecTor IT security conference

Mikko Hypponen What is the present-day governmental and nation states espionage like and how should security companies treat it? How do emails with contagious attachments transform into critical privacy problems? How do you tell that you’re being spied on? The well-known malware adventurer and cybersecurity analyst Mikko Hypponen addresses these non-trivial relevant issues of today in his “Online Espionage” speech at SecTor IT security conference.

Let’s start off with the German governmental trojan – the trojan which we detect as R2D2 because the actual network transmissions from the infected laptop sent back to the government are initiated with this pass phrase, which is C3PO-R2D2-POE, which are all references to the ‘Star Wars’ the movie.

Should antivirus and security companies like us try to detect governmental trojans? These are being used by different governments, police forces and investigators to catch bad people. I guess it isn’t a bad thing if you get hit by a governmental trojan and you are a potential school shooter or a drug lord. But it is a bad thing if you get infected by a governmental trojan and you are innocent. And we are not the ones to make that call. We have to make the decision based on something else. Malware decisions are made by technical methods. If it’s a trojan, we will detect it regardless of the source – as easy as that. And I don’t see any other way.

German governmental trojan If we would bow to, let’s say, the government of Germany, or government of Canada, or government of the United States of America, then where do we draw the line? Next stop we have is the Italians asking us not to detect something, then the Spanish, then the Israelis, the Syrians…Where do you draw the line? So we don’t, we don’t draw the line at all. If it’s a trojan, we detect it – as simple as that.

We actually did a public statement on this over 10 years ago which still stands today. And this is how we do it, we have it written out on our website and we follow that rule. But this was the very first time we had to actually use it in the real world. This was the first governmental trojan we received, which we knew was a governmental trojan.

It’s highly likely that in our collection of malware we have maybe several other trojans, which we just didn’t know were governmental trojans. Regarding this particular sample, we wouldn’t have thought twice that it was a governmental trojan – it’s a backdoor1, it’s just a keylogger2, it’s a screen grabber3. The only way we would think that was only because recording Skype was a bit weird. It wasn’t just intercepting ‘mic’ and recording everything – it was intercepting only Skype traffic, nothing else. And that was because of some legal requirement inside Germany, that you weren’t allowed to record anything else but the voice through VoIP4 traffic. I mean, we wouldn’t have thought for a second that this would be a governmental trojan, unless we would have known it. So it’s likely we have other governmental trojans which we already detected, which we actually don’t know are being used by police.

And what about espionage, spying, this ‘James Bond’ stuff? Well, spying is collecting information, that’s what it is. 20 years ago, that meant breaking into buildings and stealing paper or taking copies or photographs of them, making microfilms. If you wanted to reach the information, you had to physically go where the information was, because it was on paper, right?

Today, obviously, it’s data, it’s some computers and some computer networks, which means, at least in theory, that everything is reachable from anywhere in the world. There’s been a massive revolution on how espionage is being done: both industrial espionage and especially country-to-country, nation states espionage. Countries are spying each other with online attacks all the time. We saw first attacks like this in 2005. We know now that it had been going along for maybe 2 years before that already. So these have been going on for maybe 8 years now, or something like that.

Spoofed nuclear challenges email bundled with contagious attachment

Spoofed nuclear challenges email bundled with contagious attachment

So what are we talking about? We are talking about cases where, typically, you get an email from someone you know, someone you know and trust, like a colleague or a customer, sending you an email, talking about normal things, with an attachment, which is a document file – along the lines of: “Hi Bob, it’s me Jack, regarding the meeting we had last week, here is the agenda for the next meeting, take a look, bye-bye”. And Jack knows Bob, and there was a meeting last week, and the attachment is a PDF file or a Word document, or a PowerPoint presentation. And then, when you open it, you actually get a document on your screen, but by that time you’re already owned. You’re owned because there is an exploit5 inside the file.

So let’s have a look at some of the emails we’ve seen in these attacks. And this email looks fairly normal: “To whom it may concern”, somebody sent a PDF file about competitor’s report 2011. That’s a real person, a real person’s name, a real email address, but it’s all spoofed and fake. It’s not actually coming from him, it’s not actually coming from the email address it seems to be coming from. And you all know how easy it is to spoof SMTP.

Fake email allegedly sent by Michelle Obama

Fake email allegedly sent by Michelle Obama

Another one with PDF and Word document attachments, with pretty real-looking content and signatures and all that. Another one, sending an invitation to conference. Another one, talking about nuclear challenges in this century. Another one, sent by someone who is the principal at the company – again, it’s all fake and spoofed: “Dear working group members, here is the report I promised to send, best regards, Mr. Garrett”. He didn’t send it, but it looks real for the recipients. And this is a nice one, sent by First Lady’s Office at USA.gov, signed “Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States” (see image). She didn’t send it. But the document ‘Join Forces with Us.doc’ contains an exploit and a backdoor.

So, let’s have a closer look. You get an email like this. You believe the email to be real, why wouldn’t you? And you click on the attachment. So let’s open that file with Adobe Reader, and… bang, it’s gone away. And still, it continues loading, and eventually we get the file – everything looks great, except if you look closer you’ll see that the file name is now different from the one we were opening initially. And if we go and take a look closer at the system, suddenly you have a file called, for example, ‘A.exe’ at the root of drive C:. Windows XP does not have a file called ‘A.exe’ at the root of drive C: by default, it just appeared as a result of opening the attachment.

So what’s happened here? Well, the initial PDF file was infected. When you opened it, it crashed Adobe Reader, that’s why Adobe Reader came to screen and went away, that’s why it crashed. And it was crashed by an exploit targeting the vulnerability in Adobe Reader. In most of these cases, the vulnerabilities they are using are not zero-day. In most cases, it’s something you would actually block by just patching your systems: patching Word, patching Excel, patching PDF reader and so. And when it exploits PDF reader, it runs a piece of code which dumps 2 files from within the original file. So the file attached to the fake email has 2 files embedded inside of it: one of them is a new PDF file with a different name, and the other file is ‘A.exe’ which is a backdoor.

So it drops these on the hard drive and then it opens them both. The reason why this different PDF file is carried along at all is just for misdirection. The user clicks on the PDF file and expects to get a PDF file on his screen. The mistake they made here was that the file names didn’t match. If the file they dropped had been called just like the original one, everything would have looked fine. So they’ve been a bit sloppy here, but that happens.

And the ‘A.exe’ is a backdoor – in this case, it was ‘Poison Ivy’6, or some other typical backdoor that we see in various kinds of attacks, but also in these targeted attacks. It connects to an outside server and then gains access to the Firewalls, in many cases it connects to a server Port 80 or Port 443, opening them and can get to the Firewall, which it typically does. And whoever is sitting at the target address, now has full access to the computer which got infected, plus to all the network shares that this user can access in the local area network. And now we can all think for a moment what we can access in our organizations’ local area networks – quite a bit.

Read next: Online Espionage 2: email backdoors and RSA hack


1Backdoor in a computer system denotes a method of bypassing normal authentication, securing remote access to a computer, obtaining access to plaintext, and so on, while attempting to remain undetected. The backdoor may take the form of an installed program or may subvert the system through a rootkit.

2Keylogger is a piece of malicious software used for tracking (or logging) the keys struck on a keyboard, typically in a covert manner so that the person using the keyboard is unaware that their actions are being monitored.

3Screen Grabber is a type of spying software that convertly takes screenshots on a victim’s computer and further transmits the harvested information to a remote server.

4VoIP (Voice over IP) commonly refers to the communication protocols, technologies, methodologies, and transmission techniques involved in the delivery of voice communications and multimedia sessions over Internet Protocol (IP) networks, such as the Internet.

5Exploit is a piece of software, a chunk of data, or sequence of commands that takes advantage of a bug, glitch or vulnerability in order to cause unintended or unanticipated behavior to occur on computer software, hardware, or something electronic (usually computerised).

6Poison Ivy (alias Backdoor:W32/PoisonIvy) is a remote administration utility which bypasses normal security mechanisms to secretly control a program, computer or network.

Like This Article? Let Others Know!
Related Articles:

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment via Facebook: