Commercial and critical infrastructure organizations in Japan have been targeted in a multi-year campaign dubbed by researchers “Operation Dust Storm.”
A report published on Tuesday by endpoint security firm Cylance details the activities of a threat group that has been active since at least 2010. The attackers have targeted various organizations in Japan, South Korea, the United States, Europe, and several Southeast Asian countries, and in 2015 they started focusing on Japanese organizations.
The actor, which experts believe is a well-funded and well-organized group likely associated with a nation-state, relied on watering holes, spear phishing, unique backdoors and zero-day exploits to conduct reconnaissance and espionage.
According to Cylance, the threat actor has breached the systems of Japanese organizations in the electricity generation, finance, construction, oil and natural gas, and transportation sectors.
Experts reported that early Operation Dust Storm attacks were relatively unsophisticated and they were easily detected by the security industry. The group’s activities attracted the attention of researchers in 2011, when they used Adobe Flash Player (CVE-2011-0611) and Internet Explorer (CVE-2011-1255) zero-day vulnerabilities to deliver a piece of malware dubbed “Misdat.”
In October 2011, the attackers leveraged news surrounding the Libyan crisis and the death of Muammar Gaddafi to target US defense organizations and Uyghurs. The following year, they leveraged another Internet Explorer zero-day (CVE-2012-1889) in their operations.
In March 2013, shortly after Mandiant published a report on the notorious Chinese state-sponsored threat group known as APT1, experts noticed a significant drop in Operation Dust Storm activity until August 2013. Another noteworthy event took place in February 2014, when the actor started using a new Internet Explorer zero-day exploit (CVE-2014-0322) distributed via a watering hole set up on a software reseller’s website.
In 2015, when it started focusing on Japan, Operation Dust Storm targeted various types of organizations, including an automaker, the Japanese subsidiary of a South Korean electric utility firm, and an oil and gas company.
In addition to its previous tools, in May 2015, the group added several Android backdoors to its arsenal. These threats, designed to forward SMS messages and call information to a command and control (C&C) server, were used against victims in South Korea and Japan.
The pieces of malware used in the first attacks were unsophisticated and easy to detect, but the more recent campaigns involved custom threats that largely evaded security products, Cylance said in its report.
“At this time, [Cylance] does not believe the attacks were meant to be destructive or disruptive. However, our team believes that attacks of this nature on companies involved in Japanese critical infrastructure and resources are ongoing and are likely to continue to escalate in the future,” Cylance concluded.