Security Market Segment LS
Monday, 17 February 2020 13:15

Malware campaigns becoming ‘commoditised', says Venafi

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Malware campaigns equipped with the capability to exploit powerful, hidden backdoors are becoming commoditised, according to one security firm which says that research reveals that several high-profile hacker campaigns are integrating the misuse of SSH machine identities capabilities into their attacks.

Researchers from machine identity protection provider Venafi have warned that now any attacker with access to the dark web can gain access to the same techniques that took down the Ukrainian power grid against every business and government agency.

According to Venafi, Malware can target common SSH machine identities used to access and automate Windows, Linux and MacOS in the enterprise and out to the cloud, and these gangs can potentially monetise their victims further by selling these SSH backdoors to high profile or high value machines in the underground to nation-state affiliated Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups.

Venafi says SSH is a network protocol that provides a secure connection between two machines, enabling data communication and remote command execution. SSH machine identities, also known as SSH keys, are used to secure remote connections and automate processes, for example controlling workloads running in cloud computing environments, VPN connections and connected IoT devices - giving privileged access to organisations’ most critical systems, including servers and databases.

“This makes them highly valuable to attackers. A single SSH key can be used to gain undetected root access to critical systems and data, enabling an attacker to do anything from circumventing security controls to injecting fraudulent data, subverting encryption software, or installing persistent malware,” warns Venafi.

Venafi lists some examples of successful malware campaigns that leveraged SSH machine identities from 2019 including:

  • TrickBot: Originally a banking trojan that first appeared in 2016, TrickBot became a flexible, universal, module-based crimeware solution that has shifted focus to enterprise environments over the years. TrickBot is offered as-a-service to criminals for various purposes and its modules are designed for the needs of a specific criminal activity. It incorporates many features from network profiling, mass data collection, and incorporation of lateral traversal exploits. Last year, TrickBot added credentials-grabbing capabilities for both PuTTY (SSH client for Microsoft) and OpenSSH. In addition to targeting credentials, the malware is designed to look for Hostname and Username information for lateral movement.
  • CryptoSink: This cryptomining campaign exploits a five-year-old vulnerability (CVE-2014-3120) in Elasticsearch systems on both Windows and Linux platforms to mine XMR cryptocurrency. CryptoSink creates a backdoor to the targeted server by adding the attacker’s public key to the authorized key file on the victim’s machine.
  • Linux Worm: This worm targets vulnerable Exim mail servers on Unix-link systems to deliver Monero cryptocurrency miners. The worm creates a backdoor to the server by adding its own SSH public key and enabling the SSH server, if it is disabled.
  • Skidmap: This is a Kernel-mode rootkit that gains backdoor access to a targeted machine by adding the attacker’s public SSH key to the authorized key file. Skidmap uses exploits, misconfigurations, or exposure to the internet to gain root or administrative access to the system and drop cryptomining malware.

“SSH keys can be potent weapons in the wrong hands,” said Yana Blachman, threat intelligence specialist at Venafi.

“But until recently, only the most sophisticated, well-financed hacking groups had this kind of capability. Now, we’re seeing a ‘trickle-down’ effect, where SSH capabilities are becoming commoditised.

“What makes this “commoditisation” so worrying is that if an attacker is able to backdoor a potentially interesting target, they may monetise this access and sell it through dedicated channels to more sophisticated and sponsored attackers, such as nation state threats for the purpose of cyberespionage or cyberwarfare.

“We have seen this with the TrickBot cybercrime gang which was found to be selling a ‘bot-as-a-service’, together with a full toolset, to North-Korean-sponsored group Lazarus for both monetization and cyberespionage.”

Blachman said “SSH keys can dramatically increase attackers’ ability to cause harm, so any malware that allows them to leverage SSH capabilities should be a real concern to organizations.”

“As these capabilities become increasingly accessible, it’s vital that organisations get their houses in order. The only way to defend against these attacks is to have visibility and intelligence on how SSH machine identities are being used, so that malicious actors can be detected faster. To do this, organisations must improve Machine Identity Protection for SSH keys and equip themselves to take complete control over every single SSH machine identity they rely on in order to identify signs of compromise,” Blachman concluded.


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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired in 2020. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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