The Lazarus Group has been in the news a lot lately. Lazarus is a cybercrime organization, believed to have ties with North Korea. It’s been associated with multiple attacks on financial, government and media organizations since 2009, and possibly earlier. The group has generally focused its attacks on South Korea and the United States; the Sony hack in 2014 is the group’s highest profile attack.
Over the last few weeks, attacks on large banks in Asia have been making headline news. The most recent known attack targeted the Bangladesh Central Bank and resulted in $81 million being fraudulently taken from its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Several similar attacks tracking back to October 2015 have used a similar approach. It’s believe that Lazarus is behind these attacks.
When it comes to identifying a culprit, it’s difficult to know with great certainty who’s behind any attack. Unlike attacks in the physical world, the DNA left behind is electronic. And while the forensic data can be used to piece together where an attack came from, and ripping apart the malware can help identify some common traits (malware author DNA), ultimately it’s a judgement call.
Law enforcement commonly evaluates a crime and the suspects through motive, means and opportunity. It’s a lot harder in the cyber world to do this than in the physical one. But if you read the Operation Blockbuster (Operation Blockbuster is an alliance of cybersecurity firms dedicated to researching, tracking and dismantling the Lazarus Group) investigation into the Sony hack, you’ll read that the attribution is based on an assessment of the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of the attacker. But just as there are with crimes committed in the physical world, there are copycats. With malware, one of the realities is that once a piece of new malware is released into the wild, it can be repurposed by others quite quickly. We’ve even seen this with the game-changing Stuxnet malware that took out centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear program.
In August of 2015, the eSentire Security Operations Center (SOC) detected suspicious activity originating from an endpoint within one of our clients’ networks. We took the appropriate action and ultimately blocked the activity, alerted our client and wrote and applied a rule across our entire base which protected all clients from subsequent attack attempts. This is what our SOC does all day every day. As a result of the recent Asian bank hacks and new evidence implicating Lazarus as the perpetrator, we discovered that the attack on our client in 2015 was caused by malware used by the Lazarus Group. The client in question is a New York-based asset management firm. It isn’t a large enterprise, or a prime broker or big investment bank. It’s a midmarket company.
The Lazarus Group has attacked a midmarket US financial company. It’s happened, and it will continue to happen.
The media is attracted to stories about nation-state cyberwarfare or stories involving groups with sinister sounding names who attack large companies. Those types of stories will get you on 60 Minutes, and it is quite dramatic and concerning. But the bulk of cybercrime doesn’t involve nation-states, or even highly organized criminal organizations.
The rash of global bank hacks indicate that the Lazarus Group likes organizations that do business using SWIFT, “the global provider of secure financial messaging services”. It appears they’ve managed to compromise SWIFT by controlling the client systems authorised to transact with SWIFT. We’ve seen this approach before. If an attacker can get his malware onto your prized asset, the results will be catastrophic unless you’re watching for suspicious activity.
Sniffing all the strokes on a keyboard, grabbing copies of the clipboard, using the camera, taking snapshots of the desktop and accessing any file on the local system are all trivial tasks for most malware kits today. If Lazarus manages to deploy a kit like this on a critical SWIFT client, the battle is nearly won. This is why prevention-based approaches are so compromised. Malware evolves faster than the signatures can be created and distributed. It has been that way for years.
When we’re asked by companies that aren’t sure about whether they need managed detection and response capabilities or whether they’re a target or not, here’s what we tell them:
1) The bulk of cybercrime is committed by single or loosely affiliated criminals looking for a quick payoff. They’re looking for easy targets.
2) The interconnectedness of business today means the easiest way into a network may be through a smaller partner. The Target breach demonstrated this very painfully.
3) It is often more work to eliminate potential victims than it is to just cast a wide net.
The third point is a very interesting one. This is why we shouldn’t be surprised to see attacks targeted at the largest organizations replicated with smaller sized victims. The bad actors often use techniques like watering holes to target their victims. These may be sites or resources they know will be visited by their targets. If it’s a financial target compromise and deploy malware on a popular blog about the markets or even a popular Chinese food restaurant’s online menu. This isn’t fiction; it’s reality. The challenge with this approach is it’s not as precise as the attacker would like. So that means people who were not originally targeted get caught in the trap. It’s often more work to try and narrow the attack; more work isn’t typically a strategy we see with most bad actors.
But the “collateral damage” victims may also turn out to be attractive to an attacker. It’s really a bit of a lottery.
Making predictions is always risky, but I think I’m on pretty safe ground predicting that more groups like Lazarus will be hacking banks, law firms, insurance companies, manufactures, and other organizations whose assets are Internet-accessible. And that means pretty much every company on the planet.
I’m glad Lazarus is in the headlines. It will hopefully help drive more awareness that there is no safe place to hide. Cybercriminals are driven by greed and operate with relative impunity. The only thing to do is be prepared. Be vigilant and be ready.