News / Science & Technology

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

FILE - A man types on a computer keyboard.
FILE - A man types on a computer keyboard.

Related Articles

Sochi Games Present Hacking Minefield

If you do not need the device, do not take it, US State Department warns

More Questions than Answers About China Internet Outage

Chinese officials point to hackers, while others say it was a glitch in the Great Firewall that caused massive outages
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.”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs