Security Experts:

Cyberspy Group 'Gallmaker' Targets Military, Government Organizations

A previously undocumented cyber espionage group has been targeting entities in the government, military and defense sectors since at least 2017, according to a report published on Wednesday by Symantec.

The threat actor, tracked by the security firm as Gallmaker, has launched attacks on several overseas embassies of an unnamed Eastern European country, and military and defense organizations in the Middle East.

Symantec researchers noted that Gallmaker attacks appear highly targeted, with all known victims being related to the government, military or defense sectors.

The group has been active since at least December 2017 and its most recent attacks were observed in June 2018 – a spike in Gallmaker activity was seen in April. Gallmaker has focused on cyber espionage and experts believe it's likely sponsored by a nation state.

Asked by SecurityWeek about links to other threat actors and the possible location of the hackers, Symantec noted that it tracks Gallmaker as a new cyber espionage group and said it had no information to share on who may be behind the attacks or where the attackers are located.

The security firm pointed out that Gallmaker is interesting because it does not use any actual malware in its operations and instead relies on publicly available tools – this is known in the industry as "living off the land."

Gallmaker attacks start with a specially crafted Office document most likely delivered via phishing emails. The documents are designed to exploit the Dynamic Update Exchange (DDE) protocol to execute commands in the memory of the targeted device.

"By running solely in memory, the attackers avoid leaving artifacts on disk, which makes their activities difficult to detect," Symantec's Attack Investigations Team wrote in a blog post.

Microsoft disabled DDE last year after malicious actors started exploiting it in their attacks. However, Symantec said Gallmaker victims failed to install the Microsoft update that disabled the problematic feature.

Once they gain access to a machine, the attackers use various tools to achieve their objectives. The list includes the reverse_tcp reverse shell from Metasploit, the WindowsRoamingToolsTask PowerShell scheduler, the WinZip console, and an open source library named Rex PowerShell, which helps create PowerShell scripts for Metasploit exploits.

Researchers also noticed that the attackers have deleted some of their tools from compromised machines once they were done, likely in an effort to hide their activities.

Related: China-Linked 'Thrip' Spies Target Satellite, Defense Companies

Related: Iran-Linked 'Leafminer' Espionage Campaign Targets Middle East

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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.