Analyzing OilRig’s malware that uses DNS Tunneling

Pierluigi Paganini April 18, 2019

Iran-linked APT group OilRig is heavily leveraging on DNS tunneling for its cyber espionage campaigns, Palo Alto Networks reveals.

Security researchers at Palo Alto Networks reported that Iran-linked APT group OilRig is heavily leveraging on DNS tunneling for its cyber espionage campaigns, Palo Alto Networks reveals.

OilRig is an Iran-linked APT group that has been around since at least 2014, it targeted mainly organizations in the financial, government, energy, telecoms and chemical sectors in the United States and Middle Eastern countries.

Many of the malware used by the group in the attacks over the years use DNS tunneling to protect communications with the command and control (C&C) infrastructure.

Experts pointed out that DNS tunneling clearly represents one of the preferred communication methods of the group.

OilRig usage of DNS tunneling was first documented in 2016, some of the Trojans in its arsenal using it are Helminth, ISMAgent, QUADAGENT
BONDUPDATER, and ALMACommunicator.

DNS tunnelling OilRig

The analysis of the tunneling protocols used by the OilRig suggests:

  • All subdomains contain a randomly generated value to avoid the DNS query resulting in a cached response
  • Most rely on an initial handshake to obtain a unique system identifier
  • Most rely on hardcoded IP addresses within the DNS answers to start and stop data transfer
  • Data upload includes a sequence number that allows the C2 to reconstruct the uploaded data in the correct order
  • Depending on the tool, A, AAAA, and TXT query types have been used by OilRig for tunneling
  • All of the DNS tunneling protocols will generate a significant number of DNS queries

“Regardless of the tool, all of the DNS tunneling protocols use DNS queries to resolve specially crafted subdomains to transmit data to the C2 and the answers to these queries to receive data from the C2.” reads the analysis published by Palo Alto Networks. “Therefore, the protocols must abide by the DNS protocol, so the specially crafted subdomains must have labels (portions of the subdomain separated by periods) must start and end with a letter or digit, contain letters, digits and hyphens and be less than 63 characters in length. Also, the entire domain queried, which includes the C2 domain and the specially crafted subdomain cannot exceed 253 characters.”

All the tools leverage DNS queries to resolve specially crafted subdomains and send data to the command and control servers. The tools use protocols in different ways, they differ for the structure of the subdomains queried, for the data received by the Trojans, for the subdomains used to transmit data.

Experts observed multiple variants of the Helminth backdoor over the years all using the same DNS Type A, but the threat actors are able to change the generated subdomains to avoid detection.

“There are several variants of Helminth, as the OilRig actors actively developed this Trojan during the course of their attack campaigns. The Helminth Trojan came in two forms, a portable executable version and a PowerShell version, both of which received updates to their DNS tunneling protocol over time.” continues the analysis. “The DNS tunneling protocols used in each variant operated the same way, but the developer would make changes to the generated subdomains to make them look visually different to evade detection.”

OilRig also used the ISMAgent in many campaigns, the malware uses the DnsQuery_A API function to issue DNS AAAA requests to resolve custom subdomains. Before transmitting the data, the Trojan issues a beacon to inform the server it is ready.

OilRig also leveraged two variants of the ALMA Communicator in its attacks, each of them using a different domain structure. The two variants sent different information to the server and the formatted data within the DNS tunneling protocol in different ways.

Palo Alto researchers also documented different variants of both the BONDUPDATER tool and QUADAGENT Trojan, the latter uses AAAA queries to transmit/receive data via DNS tunneling.

“This threat group saw the benefits of using DNS tunneling, as DNS is almost universally allowed through security devices.” Palo Alto Networks concludes. “One major drawback of using DNS tunneling is the high volume of DNS queries issued to transmit data back and forth between the tool and the C&C server, which may stand out to those monitoring DNS activity on their networks,”

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, OilRig)

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