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Phishers now steal plans

Attackers behind a recent surge in phishing and payment-interception attacks on industrial companies are also stealing victims’ project and operational plans, as well as diagrams of electrical and information networks, according to a report by Kaspersky Lab.

Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks, often linked to Nigeria, seek to hijack genuine business accounts which the attackers can monitor for financial transactions to intercept or redirect. In October 2016, Kaspersky Lab researchers noticed a significant spike in the number of malware infection attempts targeting industrial customers. They identified over 500 attacked companies in 50 countries, mainly industrial enterprises and large transportation and logistics corporations. The attacks are ongoing.

The attack sequence

The attack sequence begins with a carefully crafted phishing email, appearing to come from suppliers, customers, commercial organisations and delivery services. The attackers use malware belonging to at least eight different Trojan-spy and backdoor families, all available cheaply on the black market, and designed primarily to steal confidential data and install remote administration tools on infected systems.

On infected corporate computers, the attackers take screenshots of correspondence or redirect messages to their own mail box so they can look out for interesting or lucrative transactions. The payment is then intercepted through a classic man-in-the-middle attack, by replacing the account details in a legitimate seller’s invoice with the attackers’ own. It can be difficult for a victim to spot the substitution until it is too late and the money has gone.

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The unknown threat

While analysing the command-and-control servers used in the most recent, 2017, attacks, the researchers noted that screenshots of operations and project plans, as well as technical drawings and network diagrams were among the data stolen. Further, these images had not been taken from the computers of project managers or procurement managers, the attackers’ usual targets, but from those belonging to operators, engineers, designers and architects.

“There is no need for the attackers to collect this kind of data in order to perpetrate their phishing scams. So what do they do with this information? Is the collection accidental, or intentional – perhaps commissioned by a third party?  So far, we have not seen any of the information stolen by Nigerian cybercriminals on the black market. However, it is clear that, for the companies being attacked, in addition to the direct financial loss, a Nigerian phishing attack poses other, possibly more serious, threats,” said Maria Garnaeva, Senior Security Researchers, Critical Infrastructure Threat Analysis, Kaspersky Lab.

The next step could be for attackers to gain access to the computers that form part of an industrial control system, where any interception or adjustment of settings could have a devastating impact.

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Attacker profile

When the researchers extracted the command and control (C&C) addresses from the malicious files, it turned out that in some cases the same servers were used for malware from different families. This suggests there is either just one cybercriminal group behind all the attacks, making use of different malware, or a number of groups cooperating and sharing resources.

The researchers also found that most domains were registered to residents of Nigeria.

How to mitigate the threat

Kaspersky Lab advises companies to implement the following basic security best practice:

  • Educate employees in essential email security: not clicking on suspicious links and attachments and carefully checking the origin of an email – and keep them informed of the latest tools and tricks used by cybercriminals.
  • Always double-check requests to change bank account details, payment methods etc. during transactions.
  • Install a security solution on all workstations and servers where possible – and implement all updates without delay.
  • In the event of a system being compromised, change the passwords for all accounts used on that system.
  • If your organisation has an industrial control system, install specialist security that will monitor and analyse all network activity and more.

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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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