Security Experts:

Chinese Gang Targeting Defense Firms With Latest IE Zero-Day

According to research from security firm AlienVault, there appears to be a connection between the "PlugX" gang out of China and the latest Internet Explorer vulnerability. The connection comes from a payload being delivered by sites using the vulnerability to target systems, which has the same attack process used by the PlugX gang.

Nitro Attacks Hit Chemical Firms

Last week, AlienVault published a detailed blog post on the PlugX RAT (Remote Access Trojan), going so far as to name the author of the malware itself. His identity was discovered after decoding the RAT itself and examining the payloads, which were an NVidia executable (NvSmart.exe), and a DLL (NvSmartMax.dll).

The fact that the .exe is signed with a valid signature means that it will bypass some system protections and can be loaded in some cases each time the infected host starts. It’s a clever and common method for some malware authors, and creates a tricky situation when it comes to disinfecting a compromised system.

“Once NvSmart.exe is executed, it loads NvSmartMax.dll. The attackers drop a modified version of NvSmartMax.dll which executes the binary content present on boot.ldr that contains the actual malicious code,” the post explains.

Using a debugger on the code, file system paths were discovered, which led them on a trail of evidence, all pointing to “whg0001” who is a “virus expert” that develops on a Windows system, likely in an office if the folder directories discovered are any indication.

Less than a week later, the same NVidia files are being used to deliver payloads by leveraging the latest Internet Explorer vulnerability. Given that the vulnerability was being used to deliver Poison Ivy (another RAT), the link to PlugX isn’t all that shocking. However, it's hard to deny that “whg0001” is the person who is behind this latest attack, as his computer’s filepath is still easily located when examining the latest malware samples.

“We know that the group actively using the PlugX malware also called Flowershow had access to the Internet Explorer ZeroDay days before it was uncovered. Due tot he similarities of the new discovered exploit code and the one discovered some days ago it is very likely that the same group is behind both instances,” AlienVault’s Jamie Blasco explained in a blog post.

“It seems the guys behind this 0day were targeting specific industries. We’ve seen that they compromised a news site related to the defense industry and they created a fake domain related to LED technologies that can be used to perform spearphishing campaigns to those industries.”

Microsoft has confirmed the Internet Explorer vulnerability, which impacts all versions of the browser, except Internet Explorer 10. According to the software giant, a fix is in the works, but they have not given a timeline.

In the meantime, a security advisory from Microsoft outlines some basic mitigation steps that will help to stave off attack. 

Related: Coordinated Cyber Attacks Hit Chemical and Defense Firms


view counter
Steve Ragan is a security reporter and contributor for SecurityWeek. Prior to joining the journalism world in 2005, he spent 15 years as a freelance IT contractor focused on endpoint security and security training.