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Hackers reach for the sky

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While investigating the infamous Russian-speaking cyberespionage actor Turla, Kaspersky Lab researchers have discovered how it’s evading detection of its activity and physical location.

Turla is a sophisticated cyberespionage group that has been active for more than 8 years. The attackers behind Turla have infected hundreds of computers in more than 45 countries including Kazakhstan, Russia, China, Vietnam and the United States. Types of organisations that have been affected include government institutions and embassies, as well as military, education, research and pharmaceutical companies. At the initial stage, the Epic backdoor performs victim profiling. For only the most high profile targets, the attackers then use an extensive satellite-based communication mechanism in the later stages of the attack, which helps them to hide their traces.

Satellite communications are known mostly as a tool for TV broadcasting and secure communications; however, they are also used to provide access to the Internet. Such services are mostly used in remote locations where all other types of Internet access are either unstable and slow, or not available at all. One of the most widespread and inexpensive types of satellite-based Internet connection is a so-called downstream-only connection.

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In this case, outgoing requests from a user’s PC are communicated through conventional lines (a wired or GPRS connection), with all the incoming traffic coming from the satellite. This technology allows the user to get a relatively fast download speed. However, it has one big disadvantage: all the downstream traffic comes back to the PC unencrypted. Any rogue user with the right set of inexpensive equipment and software could simply intercept the traffic and get access to all the data that users of these links are downloading.

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The Turla group takes advantage of this weakness in a different way: by using it to hide the location of its Command and Control servers (C&C), one of the most important parts of the malicious infrastructure. The C&C server is essentially a “homebase” for the malware deployed on targeted machines. Discovering the location of such a server can lead investigators to uncover details about the actor behind an operation, so here’s how the Turla group is avoiding such risks:

1.      The group first “listens” to the downstream from the satellite to identify active IP addresses of satellite-based Internet users who are online at that moment.

2.      They then choose an online IP address to be used to mask a C&C server, without the legitimate user’s knowledge.

3.      The machines infected by Turla are then instructed to exfiltrate data towards the chosen IPs of regular satellite-based Internet users. The data travels through conventional lines to the satellite Internet provider’s teleports, then up to the satellite, and finally down from the satellite to the users with the chosen IPs.

 

Interestingly, the legitimate user whose IP address has been used by the attackers to receive data from an infected machine, will also receive these packets of data but will barely notice them. This is because the Turla attackers instruct infected machines to send data to ports that, in the majority of cases, are closed by default. So the PC of a legitimate user will simply drop these packets, while the Turla C&C server, which keeps those ports open, will receive and process the exfiltrated data.

 

Another interesting thing with the Turla actor tactics is that they tend to use satellite Internet connection providers located in Middle Eastern and African countries. In their research, Kaspersky Lab experts have spotted the Turla group using IPs of providers located in countries such as Congo, Lebanon, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia or the UAE.

Satellite beams that are used by operators in these countries usually do not cover European and North American territories, making it very hard for most of security researchers to investigate such attacks.

“In the past, we’ve seen at least three different actors using satellite-based Internet links to mask their operations. Of these, the solution developed by the Turla group is the most interesting and unusual. They are able to reach the ultimate level of anonymity by exploiting a widely used technology – one-way satellite Internet. The attackers can be anywhere within range of their chosen satellite, an area that can exceed thousands of square kilometers,” said Stefan Tanase, Senior Security Researcher at Kaspersky Lab. “This makes it almost impossible to track down the attacker. As the use of such methods becomes more popular, it’s important for system administrators to deploy the correct defense strategies to mitigate such attacks.”

Kaspersky Lab products successfully detect and block the malware used by the Turla threat actor with the following detection names: Backdoor.Win32.Turla.*, Rootkit.Win32.Turla.*, HEUR:Trojan.Win32.Epiccosplay.gen, HEUR:Trojan.Win32.Generic.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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