OilRig APT group: the evolution of attack techniques over time

Pierluigi Paganini August 07, 2019

Security researcher Marco Ramilli presents a comparative analysis of attacks techniques adopted by the Iran-Linked OilRig APT group.

Today I’d like to share a comparative analysis of OilRig techniques mutation over time. In particular I will refer to great analyses made by Paloalto UNIT 4plus my own ones (HEREHEREHERE, etc..)  and more personal thoughts. I would define this group of references as reports. Those reports have been divided into 4 timing groups in order to simplify the evaluation process. I am perfectly aware that such a division could just be indicative, as a matter of fact, is not a strict division between timing groups, it’s really hard to give a strong and strict attribution (at least in my personal point of view) and very often it’s definitely not “black and white”. order to better evaluate and to offer a nice timeline on the group techniques I will refer to the following time frames: 
1. group_a: from 2016 to August 2017
2. group_b: from August 2017 to January 2018
3. group_c: from January 2018 to February 2018
4. group_d: from March 2019 to August 2019
The evaluation process would take care of the following Techniques: DeliveryExploitInstall and Command. In order to better understand those technique definitions I would add official MITRE reference codes.

OilRig Description:
According to MITRE, OilRig is a threat group with suspected Iranian origins that has targeted Middle Eastern and international victims since at least 2014. The group has targeted a variety of industries, including financial, government, energy, chemical, and telecommunications, and has largely focused its operations within the Middle East. It appears the group carries out supply chain attacks, leveraging the trust relationship between organizations to attack their primary targets. FireEye assesses that the group works on behalf of the Iranian government based on infrastructure details that contain references to Iran, use of Iranian infrastructure, and targeting that aligns with nation-state interests. This group was previously tracked under two distinct groups, APT34 and OilRig, but was combined due to additional reporting giving higher confidence about the overlap of the activity.

The main question to try to answer on the delivery stage is: “How does OilRig evolve in threat delivery over time ?” According to reports it looks like the attacker group made a nice direction change between group_a and group_b time frames. Indeed during the group_a, the main observed delivery techniques where about Phishing (rif.T1193) and Valid Accounts (rif.T1078). A Valid Account in this era (group_a) could be defined as the super-set of default credentials to exposed infrastructures or real user accounts found through alternative channels (such as: darknets, humint, etc.). From group_b to group_d time frame OilRig started a more sophisticated Spear Phishing (rif.T1193) campaigns within malicious attachments as their main threat delivery activity. The following image shows the threat delivery phases over timeline as described.

Delivery Technique Over Time

EThe main question to try to answer on the exploit section would be: “How does OilRig evolve in Exploit techniques over time ?”. According to reports it looks like the attack group made a quite big change from group_a to group_b time frames. Indeed on group_a the attacker mostly used to exploit Exposed Infrastructure (rif. T1388) , from group_b to group_d time frames OilRig used real Compromised User Accountsextracted by Malware (rif. T1386) and spread over spear phishing campaigns as shown on delivery section. The following image shows the evolution of the exploit phases over time.

Exploit Technique Over Time

The main question to try to answer on the Install section would be: “How does OilRig evolve in Installing their artifacts over the victim machines ?”. According to reports It looks like we have four differences between the four time frame groups. Maybe this technique is one of the most group characterizing technique and it could be used for post identification if you wish. The time frame group_a is definitely the most creative one in terms of used technique. Many techniques have been used since August 2017 such as: Command Line Interface (rif. T1059), ObfuscatedFiles (rif. T1027), WebShell (rif. T1100) and Timestomp (rif. T1099) in order to install Malicious actors.The time frame group_b focused its activities mainly on: process Hollowing (rif. T1093) and Scheduled Tasks (rif. T1053). On time frame group_c OilRig moved its attention on Scheduled Tasks (rif. T1053) while on time frame group_dit re-introduced the Command Line Interface (rif. T1059).The following image shows the evolution of the four classified time frames over time.

Install Technique Over Time

the main question to try to answer on the Command section would be: “How does OilRig evolve in Command and Control communications over time ?”. Again according to reports it looks like in group_a time frame the OilRig was mostly focused on extracting direct data without any specific and/or crafted infrastructure, while from time frame group_b the group began to introduce a custom Command and Control Protocol(rif. T1094) mainly developed using DNS resolutions (which is actually one of the main characteristic of the attacker group). On group_c time frame looks like OilRig introduced a Fallback Channel (rif. T1008) in addition to the Custom Command and Control Protocol (rif.T1094). During group_id time frame the attacker group introduced additional two layers: Data Encoding (rif T1132) and Custom Cryptographic Protocol (rif. T1024) which took the group to have some of the most effective infrastructures known today. The following image shows the evolution of Command technique during the four classified time frames.technique during the four classified time frames.

Command&Control Technique Over Time

The most interesting historical evolution happened on Install and Control techniques. Indeed the group made huge improvements in Control techniques by building up layers of security in their objective. The group looks very harmonious on this stage, actually they developed layered software in order to improve what was already developed without apparently forking too much dissipating efforts. They begun development by introducing crafted communication protocol over DNS and later they added, to such a layer, encoding and encryption self build protocols. On the Installation phase the group followed the general trends even if the process Hollowing technique used on group_b is quite interesting and personally never seen, but according to reports (mostly from Unit42) they used such a technique even if it is generally attributed to Gorgon Group (which is another story..).

The original post and other interesting analysis are published on the Marco Ramilli’s blog:


About the author: Marco Ramilli, Founder of Yoroi

I am a computer security scientist with an intensive hacking background. I do have a MD in computer engineering and a PhD on computer security from University of Bologna. During my PhD program I worked for US Government (@ National Institute of Standards and Technology, Security Division) where I did intensive researches in Malware evasion techniques and penetration testing of electronic voting systems.

I do have experience on security testing since I have been performing penetration testing on several US electronic voting systems. I’ve also been encharged of testing uVote voting system from the Italian Minister of homeland security. I met Palantir Technologies where I was introduced to the Intelligence Ecosystem. I decided to amplify my cybersecurity experiences by diving into SCADA security issues with some of the biggest industrial aglomerates in Italy. I finally decided to found Yoroi: an innovative Managed Cyber Security Service Provider developing some of the most amazing cybersecurity defence center I’ve ever experienced! Now I technically lead Yoroi defending our customers strongly believing in: Defence Belongs To Humans

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – APT34, MuddyWater)

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