Security Experts:

Attackers Increasingly Abuse Open Source Security Tools

Instead of developing their own hacking tools or buying them from third parties, threat groups have increasingly turned their attention to open source security tools, Kaspersky Lab reported on Wednesday.

One such tool is the Browser Exploitation Framework (BeEF), a penetration testing suite that focuses on the web browser. It allows pentesters to determine if the targeted environment is vulnerable by hooking the browser and using it to launch attacks.

BeEF enables attackers to monitor and profile the visitors of a website as it can deploy evercookies for persistent tracking, it can enumerate browsers and plugins, and obtain a list of domains visited by the victim. In addition to tracking, it can also be used to find and exploit vulnerabilities.

BeEF was recently spotted on the website of a university in Iran, where it had been used to track the site’s visitors. Kaspersky researchers also discovered that the tool has been leveraged by an APT actor they call NewsBeef.

NewsBeef, aka Newscaster and Charming Kitten, is an Iranian threat actor known for creating fake personas on social networking websites in an effort to harvest information from targeted individuals in the US, Israel, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

According to Kaspersky, the group has been leveraging BeEF to track the visitors of websites they compromised via flaws in content management systems.

“They continue to be highly active, but this time, they are using a slightly more technical toolset. On one hand, they have developed skills or discovered tools to compromise select web applications and sites, supporting their watering hole campaigns,” Kaspersky researchers said in a blog post. “On the other hand, they have repackaged leaked bot source code and repackaged open source Metasploit and PowerSploit components to produce and administer backdoors and downloaders.”

While there have been some reports of BeEF being used for exploiting vulnerabilities and delivering backdoors via Metasploit integration, in most cases Kaspersky says the tool has helped attackers track users or steal their browser history.

The security firm has spotted BeEF on various websites around the world, including a Middle Eastern embassy in Russia, an Indian military technology school, a Ukrainian ICS scanner, an EU education agency, news organizations in Turkey and Kazakhstan, music-related websites in Brazil and Germany, a British lifestyle blog, a Japanese textile manufacturer, and gaming-related sites in Romania, Russia and China.

In addition to NewsBeef, APT actors such as Crouching Yeti and TeamSpy have also been observed using open source tools in their operations.

“Previously we’ve seen cyberespionage groups using different open-sourced, legitimate pentesting tools, either in combination with their own malware or without it,” said Kurt Baumgartner, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab. “What is different now is that we’re seeing more and more groups using BeEF as an attractive and effective alternative. This fact should be taken into account by corporate security departments in order to protect the organization from this new threat vector.”

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.