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Half of hackers from Chinese region

The third quarter of 2017 clearly demonstrated that Chinese-speaking actors have not “disappeared” and are still very much active, conducting cyber-espionage campaigns against a wide range of countries and industry verticals.

In total, 10 of the 24 research projects on advanced targeted attacks conducted by Kaspersky Lab in Q3 centered around activities attributed to multiple actors in the Chinese region. These and other trends are covered in Kaspersky Lab’s latest quarterly threat intelligence summary. 

Research conducted during the period of July-September 2017 revealed a number of developments in the area of targeted attacks by, among others, Chinese-, Russian-, English-, and Korean-speaking threat actors. Chinese criminals in particular were specifically active during this period. Their revitalisation has affected not only various organisations, but also government and political bodies as well as huge regional agreements – bringing international relations into the business of advanced targeted attacks.

Highlights in Q3, 2017 include:

  • Rise of cyber-espionage attacks by Chinese-speaking actors

The most interesting of the attacks were Netsarang/ShadowPad and CCleaner – both of which involved embedding specific backdoors inside the installation packages of legitimate software. CCleaner alone managed to infect 2 million computers, making it one of the biggest attacks of 2017.

  • Growing Chinese-speaking actors’ interest in attacks on strategic facilities and economy sectors. At least two separate reports provide clear cases in point:
    1. IronHusky attack on Russian and Mongolian aviation companies and research institutes. This campaign was discovered in July, when the two countries were targeted with a Poison Ivy variant from a Chinese-speaking threat actor. The attack was connected to Mongolian air defense prospects, which were a key subject of negotiations held with Russia earlier in the year.
    2. H2ODecomposition attack on the energy sectors of India and Russia. Both countries’ energy sectors were targeted with a new piece of malware referred to as “H2ODecomposition”. In some cases, this malware was masquerading as a popular Indian antivirus solution (QuickHeal).

Furthermore, in Q3 2017, Kaspersky Lab experts issued several reports on Russian-speaking actors. Most of them were dedicated to financial and ATM attacks, however, one report examined Sofacy’s summertime activity, indicating that the group remained active.

Speaking of English-speaking actors, the third quarter also produced yet another member of the Lamberts: Red Lambert. The Lamberts is a family of sophisticated attack tools that has been used by either one or multiple threat actors against high-profile victims since at least 2008. The Red Lambert is a network-driven backdoor, discovered during the previous analysis of Grey Lambert and utilised instead of hard-coded SSL certificates in command and control communications.

“The targeted threat landscape is evolving constantly, not only in terms of cybercriminals’ being increasingly well-prepared and technologically sophisticated, but also in terms of geography. The rise of Chinese-speaking actors once again demonstrates the importance of investing in threat intelligence and arming organisations with insight on the latest trends and developments,” said Brian Bartholomew, Principal Security Researcher, Global Research and Analysis Team, Kaspersky Lab.

The Q3 APT Trends report summarises the findings of Kaspersky Lab’s subscriber-only threat intelligence reports. During the third quarter of 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team created 24 private reports for subscribers, with Indicators of Compromise (IOC) data and YARA rules to assist in forensics and malware-hunting.

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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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