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Cloud Atlas APT Shows Red October Threat Actors Are Back

Nearly two years after the Red October cyber espionage operation was exposed, researchers have spotted a new advanced persistent threat (APT) campaign that appears to represent the return of the Red October group.

Kaspersky published a research paper on Red October, a campaign targeting government, diplomatic and research organizations, in January 2013. At the time, tens of domains used by the attackers were terminated by domain registrars and hosting companies, and the malicious actors shut down the operation on their end.

Red October Attacks MalwareResearchers at Kaspersky saw the first signs of a possible Red October comeback in late 2013, but it wasn't until August of this year that they uncovered a new campaign, dubbed "Cloud Atlas," which shared numerous similarities with Red October.

One of the first similarities spotted by the security firm was the fact that both campaigns involved spear phishing emails that leveraged malicious Microsoft Word documents apparently related to the sale of diplomatic cars.

An interesting aspect noticed by researchers was that the documents, which incorporated a variation of an old Microsoft Office exploit (CVE-2012-0158), didn't write a PE backdoor on the disk directly. Instead, they dropped and executed a Visual Basic script, which in turn dropped the loader and the payload onto the infected system.

According to Kaspersky, both Cloud Atlas and Red October have been primarily aimed at organizations located in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. The company has pointed out that at least one victim was targeted in both campaigns.

"We see an obvious overlap of targets between the two, with subtle differences which closely account for the geopolitical changes in the region that happened during the last two years," researchers noted in their report.

While the encryption algorithms are different, the malware implants rely on a similar construct, Kaspersky said. Furthermore, the same compression algorithm (LZMA), including the same implementation of the algorithm, is used for command and control (C&C) communications in both campaigns, but for different purposes.

For C&C communications, the actors behind Cloud Atlas have been abusing the services of Sweden-based sync and storage provider CloudMe. Researchers found files containing system information and other data in the free CloudMe accounts registered by the attackers.

CloudMe says it will be shutting down the accounts registered by the attackers, but the company has pointed out that there appear to be tens of thousands of accounts.

Blue Coat has also been monitoring the activities of Cloud Atlas, which it has dubbed "Inception." The company reported earlier this week that the attackers created malware designed to target iOS, Android and BlackBerry mobile devices.

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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.