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Indian Cyberspies Expose Their Operation After Infecting Themselves With RAT

The India-linked threat actor tracked as Patchwork was observed employing a new variant of the BADNEWS backdoor in a recent campaign, but the hackers also infected one of their own computers, giving researchers a glimpse into their operations.

Also referred to as Dropping Elephant and Chinastrats and active since at least 2015, Patchwork is an advanced persistent threat (APT) group mainly known for the targeting of military and political individuals across the world, with a focus on entities in Pakistan.

In November and December 2021, however, Malwarebytes observed the hacking group targeting “faculty members whose research focus is on molecular medicine and biological science,” which represents a major shift in targeting for the adversary.

What’s more, the campaign was characterized by the use of a new variant of the BADNEWS remote access Trojan (RAT), called Ragnatela (“spider web” in Italian). For malware distribution, the attackers used spear phishing emails carrying malicious RTF files impersonating Pakistani authorities.

Once dropped on a victim’s machine, Ragnatela allows attackers to execute commands, enumerate files on the system, list running applications, capture screenshots and log keystrokes, download additional payloads, and upload files.

According to Malwarebytes, the Ragnatela RAT was built in late November, around the same time the campaign was launched. Both the malware and the server it communicates with were tested in late November, shortly before the attacks started.

As part of the campaign, the adversary is believed to have successfully compromised multiple entities, including users at the Ministry of Defense in Pakistan, the National Defense University in Islamabad, the Faculty of Bio-Science at UVAS University, the International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences at the University of Karachi, and the Salim Habib University.

Due to an error, the adversary also infected their own machine with the new RAT, which provided Malwarebytes with the opportunity to uncover more details about the tools the APT uses for development.

“Thanks to data captured by the threat actor’s own malware, we were able to get a better understanding about who sits behind the keyboard. The group makes use of virtual machines and VPNs to both develop, push updates and check on their victims. Patchwork, like some other East Asian APTs, is not as sophisticated as their Russian and North Korean counterparts,” Malwarebytes says.

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