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Massive Russia-Linked Botnet Raises Concerns of New Attack on Ukraine

Russia-made VPNFilter malware infects 500,000 devices in preparation of new Ukraine attack

Russia-made VPNFilter malware infects 500,000 devices in preparation of new Ukraine attack

Russia may be preparing for another massive cyberattack on Ukraine using a botnet of at least 500,000 compromised routers and network-attached storage (NAS) devices, Cisco’s Talos threat intelligence group reported on Wednesday.

The botnet is powered by a sophisticated piece of malware that researchers have dubbed VPNFilter based on the names of some folders created by the threat. Talos has worked with several other cybersecurity firms and law enforcement agencies to investigate VPNFilter. While the investigation is ongoing, an initial report has been published due to concerns that an attack involving the botnet may be imminent.

Researchers believe a state-sponsored or state-affiliated threat actor is likely behind the attack and Russia has been named the main suspect due to code overlaps with the BlackEnergy malware, which has been attributed by many to the Kremlin.

More than 500,000 hacked devices have been observed across 54 countries, but many infections have been spotted in Ukraine and their number continues to increase. The malware has compromised devices made by Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, TP-Link and QNAP, and while experts have yet to identify the attack vector they are confident that no zero-day vulnerabilities are involved.

VPNFilter is a modular piece of malware that has a wide range of capabilities. It can intercept data passing through the compromised device, including website credentials, and it can monitor the network for communications over the Modbus SCADA protocol. The malware, which uses Tor to communicate with a control panel, also has destructive capabilities that can be leveraged to make an infected device unusable.

“The destructive capability particularly concerns us. This shows that the actor is willing to burn users’ devices to cover up their tracks, going much further than simply removing traces of the malware. If it suited their goals, this command could be executed on a broad scale, potentially rendering hundreds of thousands of devices unusable, disabling internet access for hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide or in a focused region where it suited the actor’s purposes,” Talos said in its report.

Researchers are concerned that VPNFilter may be used for another massive attack on Ukraine not only due to the large number of infections and a separate command and control (C&C) infrastructure for devices in this country, but also because there are only a few weeks until Ukraine celebrates its Constitution Day.

Last year, the NotPetya wiper attack was launched on the eve of Ukraine’s Constitution Day. NotPetya has been officially attributed to Russia by the U.S. and other countries and researchers have also linked the malware to BlackEnergy.

The fact that the malware monitors Modbus communications, which are typically used for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, suggests that the attacker may also be targeting industrial control systems (ICS).

Threat groups believed to be working for the Russian government have been known to launch attacks on ICS, including on Ukraine’s energy sector back in December 2016 using a piece of malware tracked as Industroyer and CRASHOVERRIDE. There are several other Russia-linked actors that have targeted industrial systems, including Dragonfly and Dymalloy.

“VPNFilter is an expansive, robust, highly capable, and dangerous threat that targets devices that are challenging to defend. Its highly modular framework allows for rapid changes to the actor’s operational infrastructure, serving their goals of misattribution, intelligence collection, and finding a platform to conduct attacks,” Talos said.

Written By

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.

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