Operation BugDrop – Hackers siphoned 600GB taking control of PC microphones

Pierluigi Paganini February 21, 2017

Security firm CyberX uncovered the Operation Bugdrop, a cyber espionage campaign that mostly targeted Ukrainian organizations.

Researchers at Security firm CyberX have discovered a cyber espionage campaign that siphoned more than 600 gigabytes from about 70 targets in several industries, including critical infrastructure and news media.

The list of targets includes:

  • A company that designs remote monitoring systems for oil and gas pipelines
  • An international organization that monitors human rights, counter-terrorism, and computer attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure
  • An engineering company that designs electrical substations, gas distribution pipelines, and water supply plants
  • A scientific research institute
  • Editors of Ukrainian newspapers

The experts have dubbed this espionage campaign Operation BugDrop because attackers use the PC microphones to bug targets and capture the audio and other sensitive data.

The threat actors used a sophisticated malware to exfiltrate sensitive data, capture screenshots. The attack chain starts with phishing emails using malicious Microsoft Word documents, once the target machine is infected, the malware uploads the stolen audio and data to Dropbox.

To make the phishing email more effective the Word document included a graphic that looked like an official Microsoft notification, it displays the following message:

“Attention! The file was created in a newer version of Microsoft Office programs. You must enable macros to correctly display the contents of a document.”

Operation BugDrop

“Operation BugDrop is a well-organized operation that employs sophisticated malware and appears to be backed by an organization with substantial resources. In particular, the operation requires a massive back-end infrastructure to store, decrypt and analyze several GB per day of unstructured data that is being captured from its targets.” reads the analysis published by CyberX “A large team of human analysts is also required to manually sort through captured data and process it manually and/or with Big Data-like analytics.”

The vast majority of the targets are located in Ukraine, other countries affected included Saudi Arabia and Austria.

The researchers haven’t found any evidence that links the Operation BugDrop to the string of attacks against the Ukrainian infrastructure that caused the massive power outage in the country.

The attackers behind the BlackEnergy threat also targeted a broad range of industries in Ukraine leveraging on spear-phishing messages with weaponized Microsoft Word documents.

The experts at CyberX also found similarities between the Operation BugDrop and the cyber espionage campaign tracked as Operation Groundbait that was discovered in May 2016.

“Initially, CyberX saw similarities between Operation BugDrop and a previous cyber-surveillance operation discovered by ESET in May 2016 called Operation Groundbait. However, despite some similarities in the Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) used by the hackers in both operations, Operation BugDrop’s TTPs are significantly more sophisticated than those used in the earlier operation.” reads the analysis that also include the following example.

  • Dropbox for data exfiltration, a clever approach because Dropbox traffic is typically not blocked or monitored by corporate firewalls.
  • Reflective DLL Injection, an advanced technique for injecting malware that was also used by BlackEnergy in the Ukrainian grid attacks and by Duqu in the Stuxnet attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Reflective DLL Injection loads malicious code without calling the normal Windows API calls, thereby bypassing security verification of the code before its gets loaded into memory.
  • Encrypted DLLs, thereby avoiding detection by common anti-virus and sandboxing systems because they’re unable to analyze encrypted files.
  • Using legitimate free web hosting sites for command-and-control infrastructure. C&C servers are a potential pitfall for attackers as investigators can often identify attackers using registration details for the C&C server obtained via freely-available tools such as whois and PassiveTotal. Free web hosting sites, on the other hand, require little or no registration information. Operation BugDrop uses a free web hosting site to store the core malware module that gets downloaded to infected victims. In comparison, the Groundbait attackers registered and paid for their own malicious domains and IP addressees.

The CyberX researchers speculate the involvement of a nation-state actor behind the Operation BugDrop.

“Skilled hackers with substantial financial resources carried out Operation BugDrop,” reads the analysis. “Given the amount of data analysis that needed to be done on [a] daily basis, we believe BugDrop was heavily staffed. Given the sophistication of the code and how well the operation was executed, we have concluded that those carrying it out have previous field experience.”

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Operation BugDrop, Cyber Espionage)

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