ProjectSauron APT, aka Strider, found targeting firms in Russia, China

Pierluigi Paganini August 08, 2016

Experts spotted a previously unknown APT group dubbed Strider or ProjectSauron that carried out surgical cyber-espionage attacks against targets worldwide.

A previously unknown hacking group variously dubbed ‘Strider’ or ‘ProjectSauron’ has been conducting a surgical cyber espionage campaign against targets in Russia, Belgium, China, Iran, Sweden, and Rwanda.

According to experts from Symantec, the Strider crew has been active since at least 2011, its abilities and the type of targets lead the experts into believing that it is nation-state group.

The Strider group uses a sophisticated strain of malware dubbed Remsec, that set up a backdoor in the infected host.

“The group uses an advanced piece of malware known as Remsec (Backdoor.Remsec) to conduct its attacks. Remsec is a stealthy tool that appears to be primarily designed for spying purposes. Its code contains a reference to Sauron, the all-seeing antagonist in Lord of the Rings.” Symantec researchers explained in a blog post.

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“Strider is capable of creating custom malware tools and has operated below the radar for at least five years,” added Symantec. “Based on the espionage capabilities of its malware and the nature of its known targets, it is possible that the group is a nation-state level attacker.”

Experts from Kaspersky Lab published a detailed analysis on the APT group that they called ProjectSauron.

“What differentiates a truly advanced threat actor from a wannabe APT? Here are a few features that characterize the ‘top’ cyberespionage groups:

  • The use of zero day exploits
  • Unknown, never identified infection vectors
  • Have compromised multiple government organizations in several countries
  • Have successfully stolen information for many years before being discovered
  • Have the ability to steal information from air gapped networks
  • Support multiple covert exfiltration channels on various protocols
  • Malware modules which can exist only in memory without touching the disk
  • Unusual persistence techniques which sometime use undocumented OS features

ProjectSauron easily covers many of these points.” wrote Kaspersky in a blog post.

Kaspersky had discovered 30 organizations infected by the ProjectSauron in Russia, Iran, and Rwanda. The experts from Kaspersky also speculate the presence of victims in Italian-speaking countries.

The list of targets includes government agencies, military entities, scientific research centers, telecoms providers and financial institutions.

Symantec has found evidence of the largest number of Strider’s infections, it discovered 36 computers belonging to seven differed organizations since October 2011.

The analysis published by Symantec revealed that one of Strider’s victims had previously been infected by the Regin espionage malware. Strider’s attacks have tentative links with the Flamer APT group that targeted organizations in the Middle East.

“Strider’s attacks have tentative links with a previously uncovered group, Flamer. The use of Lua modules, which we’ll discuss later, is a technique that has previously been used by Flamer. One of Strider’s targets had also previously been infected by Regin.”

The experts from Kaspersky highlighted the abilities of the ProjectSauron group that made hard the detection and attribution by customizing artifacts in each target.

“The actor behind ProjectSauron has a high interest in communication encryption software widely used by targeted governmental organizations,” noted Kaspersky Lab in the report. “It steals encryption keys, configuration files, and IP addresses of the key infrastructure servers related to the encryption software.”

The security experts haven’t found evidence of the exploitation of zero-day vulnerabilities, but they don’t exclude that the ProjectSauron has 0-zero Day-Exploit in his arsenal.

“Even the diversity of ISPs selected for ProjectSauron operations makes it clear that the actor did everything possible to avoid creating patterns.” said Kaspersky experts.

For further details give a look to the detailed reports published by Symantec and Kaspersky Lab.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – ProjectSauron, Strider)

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