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Hackers move into mining

According to Kaspersky, cybercriminals have started using sophisticated infection methods and techniques borrowed from targeted attacks in order to install mining software on attacked PCs within organisations. The most successful group observed by Kaspersky Lab earned at least $7 million by exploiting their victims in just six months during 2017.

Although the cryptocurrency market is experiencing plenty of ups and downs, last year’s phenomena with surges in the value of Bitcoin has significantly changed not only global economics, but the world of cybersecurity as well. With the aim of earning cryptocurrency, criminals have started to use mining software in their attacks, which, like ransomware, has a simple monetisation model. But, unlike ransomware, it doesn’t destructively harm users and is able to stay undetected for a long time by silently using the PC’s power. Back in September 2017, Kaspersky Lab recorded a rise of miners that started actively spreading across the world, and predicted its further development. The latest research reveals that this growth has not only continued, but has also increased and extended.

Kaspersky Lab researchers recently identified a cybercriminal group with APT-techniques in their arsenal of tools to infect users with miners. They have been using the process-hollowing method that is usually used in malware and has been seen in some targeted attacks of APT actors, but has never been observed in mining attacks before.

The attack works in the following way: the victim is lured into downloading and installing an advertisement software with the miner installer hidden inside. This installer drops a legitimate Windows utility, with the main purpose being to download the miner itself from a remote server. After its execution, a legitimate system process starts, and the legitimate code of this process is changed to malicious code. As a result, the miner operates under the guise of a legitimate task, so it will be impossible for a user to recognise if there is a mining infection. It is also challenging for security solutions to detect this threat. In addition, miners mark this new process through the way it restricts any task cancellation. If the user tries to stop the process, the computer system will reboot. As a result, criminals protect their presence in the system for a longer and more productive time.

Based on Kaspersky Lab’s observations, the actors behind these attacks have been mining Electroneum coins and earned almost $7 million during the second half of 2017, which is comparable to the sums that ransomware creators used to earn.

“We see that ransomware is fading into the background, instead giving way to miners. This is confirmed by our statistics, which show a steady growth of miners throughout the year, as well as by the fact that cybercriminals groups are actively developing their methods and have already started to use more sophisticated techniques to spread mining software. We have already seen such an evolution – ransomware hackers were using the same tricks when they were on the rise,” said Anton Ivanov, Lead Malware Analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

Overall, 2.7 million users were attacked by malicious miners in 2017, according to Kaspersky Lab data. That is approximately 50% higher than in 2016 (1.87 mln). They have been falling victims as a result of adware, cracked games and pirated software used by cybercriminals to secretly infect their PCs. Another approach used was web mining through a special code located in an infected web page. The most widely used web miner was CoinHive, discovered on many popular websites.

Number of Kaspersky Lab users attacked by malicious cryptocurrency miners in 2017

Number of Kaspersky Lab users attacked by malicious cryptocurrency miners in 2017

In order to stay protected, Kaspersky Lab recommends that users do the following:

  • Don’t click on unknown websites, or suspicious banners and ads;
  • Do not download and open unknown files from untrusted sources;
  • Install a reliable security solution such as Kaspersky Internet Security or Kaspersky Free that detects and protects you from all possible threats, including malicious mining software.

For organisations, Kaspersky Lab recommends the following:

  • Carry out a security audit on a regular basis
  • Install a reliable security solution on all workstations and servers and make sure all its components are enabled to ensure the maximum protection. Kaspersky Lab customers are protected with Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business.

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Personal computing devices sales still decline in MEA

The Middle East and Africa (MEA) personal computing devices (PCD) market, which is made up of desktops, notebooks, workstations, and tablets, suffered a decline of -7.3% year on year in Q2 2017, according to the latest insights from International Data Corporation (IDC).

The global technology research and consulting firm’s Quarterly PCD Tracker for Q2 2017 shows that PCD shipments fell to around 6 million units for the quarter.

“As forecast, the market followed a similar pattern to recent quarters, with the downturn primarily stemming from a decline in shipments of slate tablets and desktops,” says Fouad Charakla, IDC’s senior research manager for client devices in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa. “This was the result of desktop users increasingly switching to mobile devices such as notebooks or even refurbished notebooks, while users of slate tablets shifted to smartphones. These trends translated into year-on-year declines of -21.9% for desktops and -15.7% for slate tablets in Q2 2017, while shipments of notebooks and detachable tablets increased 11.0% and 63.3%, respectively over the same period.”

“Market sentiment in the region remained low overall, although an aggressive push from some slate tablet vendors meant the market declined much slower than expected,” continues Charakla. “At the same time, heightened competition has also made it harder for certain players to sustain their slate tablet businesses and generate profits, causing them to lose interest in the slate tablet market altogether. Despite this, slate tablets are still the most popular computing device among home users in the region.”

Looking at the region’s key markets, IDC’s research shows that when compared to Q2 2016 overall PCD shipments were down -11.4% in the UAE, -8.9% in Turkey, and -6.7% in the ‘Rest of Middle East’ sub-region (comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan). South Africa and Saudi Arabia bucked this trend, recording year-on-year increases of 3.5% and 9.6%, respectively.

A massive education delivery in Pakistan acted as a key driver for notebook shipments in the region overall. Similarly, the education sector was the biggest driver of detachable tablet shipments, triggered by a huge delivery in Kenya, as well as two other deliveries in Pakistan and Turkey, which enabled this category to achieve the fastest growth of all the PCD categories.

“While a component shortage prevented market players from reducing their prices too much, the average price of consumer notebooks experienced a considerable year-on-year decline in Q2 2017,” says Charakla. “This played a key role in driving demand from the consumer segment, and was reflected in the growing popularity of lower-priced notebook models.”

Looking at the PC market’s vendor rankings, each of the top five vendors maintained their respective positions compared to the previous quarter, with the top four all gaining share.

Middle East & Africa PC Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
HP Inc. 23.7% 27.6%
Lenovo 19.8% 21.5%
Dell 16.3% 16.7%
ASUS 8.7% 9.4%
Acer Group 5.9% 4.1%
Others 25.7% 20.7%

Although Samsung continued to lead the tablet market, the vendor rankings in the space saw quite a few changes, with Huawei catapulting itself to second place. Lenovo also climbed up a position compared to the previous quarter, causing Apple to drop to fourth place.

Middle East & Africa Tablet Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
Samsung 20.5% 18.9%
Huawei 11.2% 15.8%
Lenovo 12.7% 9.8%
Apple 9.1% 8.8%
Alcatel 2.9% 5.0%
Others 43.5% 41.7%

“Looking to the future, the MEA PCD market is expected to decline at a faster rate than previously forecast for 2017 as a whole,” says Charakla. “Technological shifts are playing a pivotal role in deciding the future of this market, with demand for certain products shifting to other PCD products and beyond (i.e., smartphones). Accordingly, shipments of slate tablets are expected to continue declining over the coming years as demand is cannibalized by smartphones. Meanwhile, the ongoing shift to mobile computing will see growth in the desktop market remain close to flat throughout IDC’s forecast period ending 2021. Notebook shipments will experience very slow growth beyond 2018, while detachable tablets will remain the fastest growing PCD category, eating away share from other computing devices.”

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Gazer cyber-spies exposed

ESET has released new research into the activities of the Turla cyberespionage group, and specifically a previously undocumented backdoor that has been used to spy on consulates and embassies worldwide.

ESET’s research team are the first in the world to document the advanced backdoor malware, which they have named “Gazer”, despite evidence that it has been actively deployed in targeted attacks against governments and diplomats since at least 2016.

Gazer’s success can be explained by the advanced methods it uses to spy on its intended targets, and its ability to remain persistent on infected devices, embedding itself out of sight on victim’s computers in an attempt to steal information for a long period of time.

ESET researchers have discovered that Gazer has managed to infect a number of computers around the world, with the most victims being located in Europe. Curiously, ESET’s examination of a variety of different espionage campaigns which used Gazer has identified that the main target appears to have been Southeastern Europe as well as countries in the former Soviet Union Republic.

The attacks show all the hallmarks of past campaigns launched by the Turla hacking group, namely:

  • Targeted organisations are embassies and ministries;
  • Spearphishing delivers a first-stage backdoor such as Skipper;
  • A second stealthier backdoor (Gazer in this instance, but past examples have included Carbon and Kazuar) is put in place;
  • The second-stage backdoor receives encrypted instructions from the gang via C&C servers, using compromised, kegitimate websites as a proxy.

Another notable similarity between Gazer and past creations of the Turla cyberespionage group become obvious when the malware is analysed. Gazer makes extra efforts to evade detection by changing strings within its code, randomizing markers, and wiping files securely.

In the most recent example of the Gazer backdoor malware found by ESET’s research team, clear evidence was seen that someone had modified most of its strings, and inserted phrases related to video games throughout its code.

Don’t be fooled by the sense of humour that the Turla hacking group are showing here, falling foul of computer criminals is no laughing manner.

All organisations, whether governmental, diplomatic, law enforcement, or in traditional business, need to take today’s sophisticated threats serious and adopt a layered defence to reduce the chances of a security breach.

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