Thursday, April 28, 2011

RSA: A Not-So Targeted Targeted Attack

Via -

Several weeks before news of the RSA compromise broke, a good friend and industry colleague here in D.C. received an email, purportedly from a well-known industry expert on terrorism studies.
The subject of the email touted a listing of risk assessment security organizations, and the attachment appeared to be just that -- an Excel spreadsheet containing a list of many of the major security industry organizations. Embedded within the document was a series of Flash Action Script (rev3), which, in and of itself, is a feature and not necessarily malevolent. However, it all goes Pete Tong from here as the action script then manifested a Shockwave Flash payload, triggering an uninitialized memory reference flaw, which can result in arbitrary code execution on its target. This vulnerability is now better known as CVE-2011-0609.

Some further investigation revealed that my contact was not the only recipient of this email: It had been sent out to a number of other individuals within the security industry -- in likelihood, somewhere in the ballpark of about 100 individuals.

So we have a previously unpatched flaw in Flash 9 and 10 being sent to prominent members of the community in a not-so-convincing email. Prior to understanding the scale on which this exploit had been used, my first thought was that this was not a targeted attack. To begin with, the email lure was on point in terms of genre, but lacked any of the more convincing specifics that are generally associated with highly targeted attacks.


So this was either a huge waste of an 0day, and the attacker spent all of his time on exploit development rather than target reconnaissance, or the exploit was intended for a broader audience. News of similar emails sent to similarly placed members of the industry (including some former, high-ranking national security policy-makers) confirmed the latter.

And then there was RSA. Unfortunately, but for good reason, not a lot of technical specifics have been made publicly available by RSA; however, it is clear from what has been released that the phishing email did indeed try to coax RSA employees into opening its attachment through promising details of the “2011 Recruitment Plan,” and was directed toward a "small group of users." RSA have additionally confirmed that the email came complete with an Excel spreadsheet attachment, which exploited the very same Flash vulnerability (CVE-2011-0609) previously used in the aforementioned attacks. This immediately raised some serious questions in my mind as to how targeted the attacks against RSA really were.


Is it true to say that RSA was targeted? Sort of.

From the information available, I believe, that RSA was indeed a target, but one of many targets associated with a broader campaign designed to seek out industrial secrets. This is very similar to the modus operandi used by other recent attacks against industry, including the Night Dragon attacks publicized by McAfee in February.

Did those responsible behind the RSA attack develop a specific offensive capability and engage in activities to specifically seek out data associated with RSA’s SecurID and authentication technologies? Absolutely not. All things considered, it is my belief that those behind the RSA hack caught a lucky break, and had never anticipated the level of success that this particular venture might yield.


The various CVE-2011-0609 samples outlined by Mila on the Contagio Malware Dump blog seem to confirm the then 0day exploit was used on a wider group than just RSA.

Maximizing the Return on Exploit Investment (ROEI)

Given the research time it takes to find a new exploitable vulnerability and then develop a working and reliable exploit for that new vulnerability, it would make sense that the attackers wanted to maximize the return on their exploit 'investment'. Of course, the 'return' for these type of threat actors (APT) is not fast money, but the amount of sensitive data that can be obtained from the targeted companies.

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