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Dropping Elephant – A New and Growing Cyber Espionage Group

Kaspersky Lab is monitoring a new cyber espionage group that it calls Dropping Elephant. A surprising — and somewhat worrying — feature is that this group achieves a high success rate with only low tech attacks. In fact, it has been so successful that it seems to have expanded it group membership from (probably) just India to include new members on the Pacific West Coast of America.

Kaspersky Lab is monitoring a new cyber espionage group that it calls Dropping Elephant. A surprising — and somewhat worrying — feature is that this group achieves a high success rate with only low tech attacks. In fact, it has been so successful that it seems to have expanded it group membership from (probably) just India to include new members on the Pacific West Coast of America.

“The modus operandi of ‘Dropping Elephant’ (also known as ‘Chinastrats‘) could hardly be called sophisticated,” Kaspersky says. “The attackers rely heavily on social engineering and low-budget malware tools and exploits.”

The attacks start with mass emails to targets it considers relevant — hundreds of thousands between November 2015 and June 2016. There is no malicious content at this stage; but if the email is opened, a simple ping request sends type of browser, IP address, device and location data to the attackers.

From this data, Dropping Elephant selects specific targets for spear-phishing. This time weaponized Word or PowerPoint documents are sent as attachments containing exploits for the CVE-2012-0158 and CVE-2014-6352 vulnerabilities. Both have been patched by Microsoft, but with social engineering both are still used successfully. Alternatively, lures in the emails seek to send the targets to a watering hole disguised as a political news site.

Once a vulnerability has been successfully exploited, malware is downloaded to steal and exfiltrate spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, PDF files and any login credentials that are saved within the browser. One of the backdoors makes some attempt to obfuscate the C&C locations by disguising them within comments to articles on legitimate websites.

“This technique has previously been observed, albeit with a far more complex execution, in operations conducted by Miniduke and other threat actors,” notes Kaspersky.

Analysis of attack activity leads Kaspersky to believe that the group is working out of India — or at least the UTC+5 and UTC+6 time zones. However, “since May 2016, Kaspersky Lab researchers have spotted a new activity pattern for the group in a new geographical area that includes Pacific Standard Time zone, corresponding — among others — to West Coast working hours in the US. This is likely to be the result of increased headcount in the Dropping Elephant team.”

The primary targets for Dropping Elephant would seem to be “Chinese-based government and diplomatic entities and any individuals connected to them, as well as partners of these organizations in other countries.” Kaspersky says there is no proof to suggest that a nation-state might be involved with the group.

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The good news about these attacks are that they are low-tech and can easily be spotted. The bad news is that the group is still successful.

“Despite using such simple and affordable tools and exploits,” comments Vitaly Kamluk, head of Kaspersky’s APAC research center, “the team seem capable of retrieving valuable intelligence information, which could be the reason why the group expanded in May 2016. The expansion also suggests that it is not going to end its operations anytime soon.”

He also warns that just because the group isn’t using any sophisticated, hard-to-detect tools currently, this could change at any time.

Written By

Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.

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