New research is shining a light on the ongoing evolution of the BlackEnergy malware, which has been spotted recently targeting government institutions in the Ukraine.
Security researchers at ESET and F-Secure each have dived into the malware's evolution. BlackEnergy was first identified several years ago. Originally a DDoS Trojan, it has since morphed into "a sophisticated piece of malware with a modular architecture, making it a suitable tool for sending spam and for online bank fraud," blogged ESET's Robert Lipovsky.
"The targeted attacks recently discovered are proof that the Trojan is still alive and kicking in 2014," wrote Lipovsky, a malware researcher at ESET.
ESET has nicknamed the BlackEnergy modifications first spotted at the beginning of the year 'BlackEnergyLite' due to the lack of a kernel-mode driver component. It also featured less support for plug-ins and a lighter overall footprint.
"The omission of the kernel mode driver may appear as a step back in terms of malware complexity: however it is a growing trend in the malware landscape nowadays," he blogged. "The threats that were among the highest-ranked malware in terms of technical sophistication (e.g., rootkits and bootkits, such as Rustock, Olmarik/TDL4, Rovnix, and others) a few years back are no longer as common."
The malware variants ESET has tracked in 2014 – both of BlackEnergy and of BlackEnergy Lite – have been used in targeted attacks. This was underscored by the presence of plugins meant for network discovery, remote code execution and data collection, Lipovsky noted.
"We have observed over a hundred individual victims of these campaigns during our monitoring of the botnets," he blogged. "Approximately half of these victims are situated in Ukraine and half in Poland, and include a number of state organizations, various businesses, as well as targets which we were unable to identify. The spreading campaigns that we have observed have used either technical infection methods through exploitation of software vulnerabilities, social engineering through spear-phishing emails and decoy documents, or a combination of both."
In a whitepaper, researchers at F-Secure noted that in the summer of 2014, the firm saw samples of BlackEnergy targeting Ukrainian government organizations for the purposes of stealing information. These samples were nicknamed BlackEnergy 3 by F-Secure and identified as the work of a group the company refers to as "Quedagh." According to F-Secure, the group is suspected to have been involved in cyber-attacks launched against Georgia during that country's conflict with Russia in 2008.
"The Quedagh-related customizations to the BlackEnergy malware include support for proxy servers and use of techniques to bypass User Account Control and driver signing features in 64-bit Windows systems," according to the F-Secure whitepaper. "While monitoring BlackEnergy samples, we also uncovered a new variant used by this group. We named this new variant BlackEnergy 3."
Only Quedagh is believed to be using BlackEnergy 3, and it is not available for sale on the open market, noted Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure.
"The name [of the group] is based on a ship taken by Captain Kidd, an infamous privateer," he said. "It is our working theory that the group has previous crimeware experience. Its goals appear to be political but they operate like a crimeware gang. There have been several cases this year of which BlackEnergy is the latest. The trend is one of off-the-shelf malware being used in an APT [advanced persistent threat] kind of way. The tech isn't currently worthy of being called APT, but its evolving and scaling in that direction."
Within a month of Windows 8.1's release, the group added support for 64-bit systems. They also used a technique to bypass the driver-signing requirement on 64-bit Windows systems.
In the case of BlackEnergy 3, the malware will only attempt to infect a system if the current user is a member of the local administration group. If not, it will re-launch itself as Administrator on Vista. This will trigger a User Account Control (UAC) prompt. However, on Windows 7 and later, the malware will look to bypass the default UAC settings.
"The use of BlackEnergy for a politically-oriented attack is an intriguing convergence of criminal activity and espionage," F-Secure notes in the paper. "As the kit is being used by multiple groups, it provides a greater measure of plausible deniability than is afforded by a custom-made piece of code."