Cybercriminals are always upping their game. One of their latest gambits, a sophisticated phishing attack that involved hosting malware on at least one state’s government servers, shows that they may be outpacing the good guys.
The multistage targeted attack, discovered and announced last week by researchers at the Cisco Talos threat intelligence group, began with the bad actors creating a realistic-looking “spoof” email that purported to be from the Securities and Exchange Commission. This spear-phishing email was sent out to a number of government agencies in a highly targeted scheme, which the researchers deduce came from a motivated threat actor or group that continues to operate.
At the government agencies where the phishing emails succeeded, the online criminals were able to surreptitiously plant malicious code on government servers in at least one state, Louisiana, to create a “malware infection chain” likely to dupe other targets. Representatives from the state of Louisiana had no comment for this story.
According to Craig Williams, senior technical leader at Cisco Talos, this attack is similar to previous so-called DNSMessenger attacks, which have become more frequent this year, whereby sophisticated techniques are used to infect legitimate enterprise and government computer systems with viruses, ransomware, Trojans and other types of malware.
“We have threat hunting techniques specifically designed to detect DNSMessenger,” said Williams, describing how he and his team of researchers tracked this exploit and the infected state government server. “Once we examined the malware sample, that led us to the web server.” He added that it appeared only “a single server” was affected.
While the researchers appear to have exposed this attack before it could gain too much traction (and impact more government servers), the growing creativity and sophistication of both the phishing attacks and hackers’ ability to insert malware into a legitimate government enterprise servers underscores how much more crafty and talented cybercriminals are becoming, according to Williams. “By using ‘known good’ servers, attackers are hoping to go unnoticed,” he said. “No one would normally question someone connecting to a state of Louisiana public web server, for example.”
And the government sector is becoming an increasingly attractive target for such attacks. According to the 2017 U.S. State and Federal Government Cybersecurity Report, released in August 2017 by SecurityScorecard, government organizations received the lowest security scores across multiple sectors, including transportation, retail and healthcare. “It’s clear that cybersecurity incidents are not going anywhere and that government will continue to remain a target,” the report concluded. “But with technology propelling forward and hackers as motivated as ever, government agencies are struggling to put up effective cybersecurity defenses, and hackers are taking advantage.”
Williams agreed. “We will likely see the actors behind DNSMessenger continue to use any public server they can compromise,” he said. “It helps the actors hide their infrastructure and go undetected longer.”