Tuesday, September 13, 2011

APT: State-Sponsored Spies Collaborate with Crimeware Gang

Via The Register UK -

Hackers sponsored by the Chinese government and other nations are collaborating with profit-driven malware gangs to infiltrate corporate networks storing government secrets and other sensitive data, researchers say.

In many ways, the relationship between state-sponsored actors and organized crime groups that target online bank accounts resembles the kind of mutually benefiting alliances found in nature every day. Just as human intestines create the ideal environment for certain types of bacteria – and in turn receive crucial nutrients and digestive assistance – crimeware operators often cooperate with government-backed spies perpetrating the kinds of APTs, or advanced persistent threats, that have pillaged Google, RSA Security, and other US companies.

To the potential benefit of state-sponsored hackers, profit-driven malware gangs frequently have control of large numbers of infected machines belonging to government contractors and Fortune 500 companies. Because most of the machines never conduct business online, they may not represent much of an asset to the criminal gangs, which often allow the infected machines to sit dormant for months or years.

The same machines, however, can be a goldmine to spies hoping to plant APTs that steal weapons blueprints or other sensitive government data from adversaries. So rather than build an exploit from scratch, the APT actors can simply use botnets controlled by the attackers to access an infected machine on a sensitive network the spies want to infiltrate.

"Almost always, it's cheaper for them to do the latter," said Darien Kindlund, a senior staff scientist at FireEye, a network security firm. "What this means is there's an actually symbiotic relationship here."

In exchange for access to already-infected machines inside government contractors, state-sponsored actors often give malware gangs attack code that exploits previously unknown flaws in Microsoft's Internet Explorer and other widely used applications. As these zero-day vulnerabilities become known to people defending government contractor networks, the exploits quickly lose their value to APT actors. The same code, however, often has plenty of currency among gangs preying on smaller businesses and mom-and-pop end users.


In exchange for passing along malware hand-me-downs that are no longer needed, Kindlund said, APT groups get access to botnets operated by the criminal malware operators. For support, he cited a recently presented research from computer scientist Stefan Savage of the University of California at San Diego, and articles such as this one from security journalist Brian Krebs.


He went on to say the cooperation between the groups is so common that brokers now exist to help make trades it more efficient.


I have heard security professionals discuss this threat over the past few years...at Defcon, at bars....but the time is coming, we will need to start discussing it with management.

That ZeuS might just be a ZeuS, but the possibility exist that the humans controlling it aren't looking for online banking information.

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