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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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Revealing the real cost of ‘free’ online services

A free service by Finnish cybersecurity provider F-Secure reveals the real cost of using “free” services by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, among others.

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What do Google, Facebook, and Amazon have in common? Privacy and identity scandals. From Cambridge Analytica to Google’s vulnerability in Google+, the amount of personal data sitting on these platforms is enormous.

Cybersecurity provider F-Secure has released a free online tool that helps expose the true cost of using some of the web’s most popular free services. And that cost is the abundance of data that has been collected about users by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon Alexa, Twitter, and Snapchat. The good news is that you can take back your data “gold”.

F-Secure Data Discovery Portal sends users directly to the often hard-to-locate resources provided by each of these tech giants that allow users to review their data, securely and privately.

“What you do with the data collection is entirely between you and the service,” says Erka Koivunen, F-Secure Chief Information Security Officer. “We don’t see – and don’t want to see – your settings or your data. Our only goal is to help you find out how much of your information is out there.”

More than half of adult Facebook users, 54%, adjusted how they use the site in the wake of the scandal that revealed Cambridge Analytica had collected data without users’ permission.* But the biggest social network in the world continues to grow, reporting 2.3 billion monthly users at the end of 2018.**

“You often hear, ‘if you’re not paying, you’re the product.’ But your data is an asset to any company, whether you’re paying for a product or not,” says Koivunen. “Data enables tech companies to sell billions in ads and products, building some of the biggest businesses in the history of money.”

F-Secure is offering the tool as part of the company’s growing focus on identity protection that secures consumers before, during, and after data breaches. By spreading awareness of the potential costs of these “free” services, the Data Discovery Portal aims to make users aware that securing their data and identity is more important than ever.

A recent F-Secure survey found that 54% of internet users over 25 worry about someone hacking into their social media accounts.*** Data is only as secure as the networks of the companies that collect it, and the passwords and tactics used to protect our accounts. While the settings these sites offer are useful, they cannot eliminate the collection of data.

Koivunen says: “While consumers effectively volunteer this information, they should know the privacy and security implications of building accounts that hold more potential insight about our identities than we could possibly share with our family. All of that information could be available to a hacker through a breach or an account takeover.”

However, there is no silver bullet for users when it comes to permanently locking down security or hiding it from the services they choose to use.

“Default privacy settings are typically quite loose, whether you’re using a social network, apps, browsers or any service,” says Koivunen. “Review your settings now, if you haven’t already, and periodically afterwards. And no matter what you can do, nothing stops these companies from knowing what you’re doing when you’re logged into their services.”

*Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/05/americans-are-changing-their-relationship-with-facebook/
**Source: https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/30/18204186/facebook-q4-2018-earnings-user-growth-revenue-increase-privacy-scandals
***Source: F-Secure Identity Protection Consumer (B2C) Survey, May 2019, conducted in cooperation with survey partner Toluna, 9 countries (USA, UK, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Brazil, Finland, Sweden, and Japan), 400 respondents per country = 3600 respondents (+25years)

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WhatsApp comes to KaiOS

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By the end of September, WhatsApp will be pre-installed on all phones running the KaiOS operating system, which turns feature phones into smart phones. The announcement was made yesterday by KaiOS Technologies, maker of the KaiOS mobile operating system for smart feature phones, and Facebook. WhatsApp is also available for download in the KaiStore, on both 512MB and 256MB RAM devices.

“KaiOS has been a critical partner in helping us bring private messaging to smart feature phones around the world,” said Matt Idema, COO of WhatsApp. “Providing WhatsApp on KaiOS helps bridge the digital gap to connect friends and family in a simple, reliable and secure way.”

WhatsApp is a messaging tool used by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide who need a simple, reliable and secure way to communicate with friends and family. Users can use calling and messaging capabilities with end-to-end encryption that keeps correspondence private and secure. 

WhatsApp was first launched on the KaiOS-powered JioPhone in India in September of 2018. Now, with the broad release, the app is expected to reach millions of new users across Africa, Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

“We’re thrilled to bring WhatsApp to the KaiOS platform and extend such an important means of communication to a brand new demographic,” said Sebastien Codeville, CEO of KaiOS Technologies. “We strive to make the internet and digital services accessible for everyone and offering WhatsApp on affordable smart feature phones is a giant leap towards this goal. We can’t wait to see the next billion users connect in meaningful ways with their loved ones, communities, and others across the globe.”

KaiOS-powered smart feature phones are a new category of mobile devices that combine the affordability of a feature phone with the essential features of a smartphone. They meet a growing demand for affordable devices from people living across Africa – and other emerging markets – who are not currently online. 

WhatsApp is now available for download from KaiStore, an app store specifically designed for KaiOS-powered devices and home to the world’s most popular apps, including the Google Assistant, YouTube, Facebook, Google Maps and Twitter. Apps in the KaiStore are customised to minimise data usage and maximise user experience for smart feature phone users.

In Africa, the KaiOS-powered MTN Smart and Orange Sanza are currently available in 22 countries, offering 256MB RAM and 3G connectivity.

KaiOS currently powers more than 100 million devices shipped worldwide, in over 100 countries. The platform enables a new category of devices that require limited memory, while still offering a rich user experience.

* For more details, visit: Meet The Devices That Are Powered by KaiOS

* Also read Arthur Goldstuck’s story, Smart feature phones spell KaiOS

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