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Military Organizations in Pakistan Targeted With Sophisticated Espionage Tool

A newly identified threat actor tracked as NewsPenguin has been targeting military organizations in Pakistan with sophisticated malware.

A newly identified threat actor has been targeting military organizations in Pakistan with sophisticated malware, BlackBerry reports.

Tracked as NewsPenguin, the adversary has been observed sending phishing emails that use the upcoming Pakistan International Maritime Expo & Conference (PIMEC-2023) as bait and which carry weaponized documents to deliver an advanced espionage tool.

Running February 10-12, PIMEC is an initiative of the Pakistani Navy that helps private and public organizations showcase products and develop relationships.

NewsPenguin’s malicious documents, which pose as an exhibitor manual that appears to target PIMEC visitors, carry embedded Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) macros to execute malware.

Once opened, the lure document uses a remote template injection technique to fetch the next stage from a remote server that only serves the payload to Pakistani IP addresses.

The victim is prompted to enable editing in the document and, once that happens, embedded VBA macro code is executed to save an RTF file on the machine. The script also checks the OS version, invokes the command prompt, and adds a registry key for persistence.

Multiple other files leading to the final payload are also downloaded on the victim’s machine. NewsPenguin’s agent, which is injected into explorer.exe, is a previously undocumented espionage tool that can bypass sandboxes and virtual machines (VMs).

NewsPenguin performs multiple checks to determine whether it runs in a sandbox environment, then connects to a hardcoded remote server to receive the IP of the command-and-control (C&C) server and start receiving commands, which are base64 encoded.

The researchers discovered that the malware waits five minutes between commands, likely another attempt to bypass sandboxes, which typically have a time limit of fewer than five minutes per sample.

Based on received commands, the malware collects and sends information about the machine, runs an additional thread, copies or moves files, deletes files, creates directories, sends the content of files to the server, executes files, and uploads or downloads files from the server.

Domains associated with these attacks were registered in the second half of 2022, showing that NewsPenguin has been planning the operation for a while.

The threat actor’s targets include military technology companies, nation-states, and military organizations in Pakistan, including PIMEC organizers, exhibitors, and visitors.

“Given the highly focused nature of the targets (the Pakistan maritime industry), previously unseen tooling, and new network infrastructure, it is unlikely that the threat actor behind it is connected to casual cybercrime. Instead, we consider it highly likely that the attacker is a nation-state or an outsourced team working for a nation-state threat actor,” BlackBerry concludes.

Related: Nation-State Hacker Attacks on Critical Infrastructure Soar: Microsoft

Related: After Nation-State Hackers, Cybercriminals Also Add Sliver Pentest Tool to Arsenal

Related: Sophisticated Cyberattack Targets Pakistani Military

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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