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February 13, 2014

'Mask' Malware Called 'Most Advanced' Cyber-espionage Operation

by Matthew Hilburn

Researchers at the Internet security firm Kaspersky Lab say they have uncovered what they’re calling “one of the most advanced global cyber-espionage operations to date.”

The malware is called “Careto,” which roughly means face or mask in Spanish. Since at least 2007, it has netted 380 unique victims in 31 countries, Kaspersky said.

Kaspersky called the Mask  “an extremely sophisticated piece of malware,” which is very hard to detect.

The malware predominantly targets government institutions, diplomatic offices and embassies, energy, oil and gas companies, research organizations and activists, Kaspersky said.

Countries where Mask infections have been observed include several in Latin America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.

Additional countries included China the United States, Turkey, Egypt, France, Germany, Belgium, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom.

Spanish language tie

Apart from the Mask’s duration and scope, it is of interest because the “authors appear to be native in the Spanish language which has been observed very rarely in APT (advanced persistent threat) attacks,” according to Kaspersky.

According to Christopher Burgess, CEO of Prevendra, Inc., an Internet security firm, “the Spanish-language market has not been a primary focus of the information security community at the enterprise/government or individual consumer level.”

“It is well known the Spanish banking software offerings are among the best, thus the targeting of the ingredients of the various countries’ economic backbones and foreign diplomacy of the region is most interesting,” he said.

Burgess said that the big question is who could pull this off?

Kaspersky offers one idea.

“Several reasons make us believe this could be a nation-state sponsored campaign, said Costin Raiu, Director of the Global Research and Analysis Team at Kaspersky Lab in a statement.

“First of all, we observed a very high degree of professionalism in the operational procedures of the group behind this attack," he said.

"From infrastructure management, shutdown of the operation, avoiding curious eyes through access rules and using wiping instead of deletion of log files," he said.

"These combine to put this APT ahead of Duqu (another malware) in terms of sophistication, making it one of the most advanced threats at the moment," he said. "This level of operational security is not normal for cyber-criminal groups.”

Dmitry Bestuzhev, head of Kaspersky’s research center for Latin America, has his own strong suspicions.

“We can certainly say it’s some Spanish speaking government,” he said in an email. “We say it’s a government because of the Careto complexity. The attackers invested a lot of science time and also money. This can be only a government.”

But Matthew Aid, a an independent intelligence analyst, said he didn’t think it was a nation-state like China, Russia or the U.S.

“It sounds like something a group of hackers would do,” he said.

He said that the programming used in a lot of malware systems that could be done by “some kids sitting at a terminal thinking how they can put malware out into the ether.”

“It’s not all that hard to do,” he said.

Taking off the 'Mask'

Kaspersky said they first became aware of the Mask last year when it tried “to exploit a vulnerability in the company’s products which was fixed five years ago.”

Infections occur through spear-phishing e-mails with links to a “malicious website.”

Spear-phishing emails appear to come from a trusted source. After infecting the computer, the malicious website sends the user to the real website referenced in the email.

Kaspersky said the Mask “can intercept network traffic, keystrokes, Skype conversations, PGP keys, analyse WiFi traffic, fetch information from all Nokia devices, screen captures and monitor all file operations.”

Bestuzhev said the malware stole “secrets of the latest research done in the laboratories, diplomatic documents, government plans and documents in general.”

“It was also stealing private encryption keys and private encryption certificates used to cipher connections and locally stored data,” he said. “Additionally the attackers stole certificated used to signed PDF documents."

"It’s a very important point since now they can build malicious PDF files including exploits and when to sign them with a valid signature, so nobody would suspect it is something malicious which would allow to trespass many security filters,” he said.

Concerns about information

Aid said that he sometimes thinks Kaspersky can be “alarmist,” but that he liked that the company “goes places and looks under rocks” that other security firms don’t.

“They don’t give you the means by which you can make an independent assessment,” he said. “This is the sixth or seventh major storm they’ve raised, and then it disappears, and you sort of wonder has this malware disappeared or is it still out there in the ether?”

Kaspersky said that during the investigation into the Mask, the command and control servers, which were in Latin America, were shut down, meaning, at least temporarily, the malware can’t call home.

But Aid is quick to warn about the longevity of malware.

“When you insert something into the Internet, it never dies,” he said. “Once it’s on the Internet, it will never go away.”