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Espionage Attack Uses Scripts for Data Exfiltration

A recently detected espionage campaign is delivered via malicious emails, but maintains presence on compromised machines by using scripts instead of a binary payload, Malwarebytes researchers have discovered.

The campaign was targeting a Saudi Arabia Government entity with emails containing a Word document weaponized with malicious macros. The scripts delivered using the macros were able achieve persistence on compromised systems and maintain communication with a command and control (C&C) server.

The attackers use scripts to fingerprint the victims’ machines and to deliver commands that are then executed via PowerShell. Communication with the server is made via hacked websites acting as proxies, Malwarebytes has discovered.

Featuring the logo of a Saudi Government branch, the malicious document, which also includes several Base64 encoded strings alongside the macro, prompts the victim to “Enable Content,” claiming it is in protected view.

The malicious VBScript first attempts to disable or lower security settings within Microsoft Excel and Word through altering corresponding registry keys. The script also fingerprints the victim for their IP address, and then proceeds to retrieve a stream of data from the Pastebin website using its own proxy.

The fetched data is converted into two scripts, one PowerShell and one Visual Basic. The latter is used for persistence via a Run key in the registry and a scheduled task and also acts as the launcher for the PowerShell script. Both are stored as hidden system files under the Documents folder.

The PowerShell script also carries instructions to lower the security settings for Microsoft Office, but its main function is to exfiltrate data and communicate with the C&C.

Data is exfiltrated via several hardcoded websites acting as a proxy. 

The use of scripts as part of this campaign provides increased flexibility due to the modularity of the attack, in addition to ensuring increased stealth. While traditional malware can use a packer, this attack can’t, thus having to rely on various encoding techniques.

“This attack is very different from the typical malicious spam we see on a daily basis, blasting Locky or some banking Trojan. Indeed, there is no malicious binary payload (although one could be downloaded by the C&C) which makes us think the attackers are trying to keep a low profile and remain on the system while collecting information from their target,” the security researchers say.

Related: Rurktar Malware: An Espionage Tool in Development

Related: Iranian 'CopyKittens' Conduct Foreign Espionage

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