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Researchers Warn Against Knee-Jerk Attribution of 'Olympic Destroyer' Attack

Cyber Attack Attribution

Attribution has become a buzzword in malware analysis. It is very difficult to achieve -- but is necessary in a world that is effectively engaged in the early stages of a geopolitical cyberwar. Malware researchers tend to stop short of saying, 'this country or that actor is behind this attack'. Nevertheless, they are not shy in dropping hints, leaving the reader to make subjective conclusions.

They have done just that with the recent cyber-attacks against the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

The New York Times comments, "Security companies would not say definitively who was behind the attack, but some digital crumbs led to a familiar culprit: Fancy Bear, the Russian hacking group with ties to Russian intelligence services."

Microsoft tweeted, "Fresh analysis of the #cyberattack against systems used in the Pyeongchang #WinterOlympics reveals #EternalRomance SMB exploit."

EternalRomance -- one of the leaked NSA exploits -- along with SMB was employed in the Bad Rabbit ransomware which has been likened to NotPetya which the UK government today ascribed to the Russian intelligence services.

Intezer is a firm that specializes in recognizing code reuse. It has analyzed the Olympic attacks, and comments, "We have found numerous small code fragments scattered throughout different samples of malware in these attacks that are uniquely linked to APT3, APT10, and APT12 which are known to be affiliated with Chinese threat actors."

Recorded Future comments (PDF), "Our own research turned up trivial but consistent code similarities between Olympic Destroyer modules and several malware families used by the Lazarus Group. These include standard but different functions within BlueNoroff Banswift malware, the LimaCharlie family of Lazarus malware from the Novetta Blockbuster report, and a module from the Lazarus SpaSpe malware meant to target domain controllers." Lazarus is, of course, considered to be synonymous with North Korea.

But while saying that there are code similarity hints at connections with North Korea, Recorded Future warns against jumping to any specific conclusion. "The trouble with this technique is that while code similarity can be stated with certainty, down to a percentage of bytes shared, the results are not straightforward and require expert interpretation. The Olympic Destroyer malware is a perfect example of how we can be led astray by this clustering technique when our standard for similarity is too low."

Code analysis suggests that Russia, China or North Korea, or any combination thereof, or all, or none of these state actors were behind the Winter Olympics attack.

Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, principal security researcher at the Insikt Group at Recorded Future says: “Complex malware operations make us take pause to reevaluate research methods and make sure the research community is not being misled by its own eagerness to attribute attacks."

Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future says: “Attribution continues to be important in cyber-attacks because it shapes the victim, public, and government responses. However, accurate attribution is both more crucial and more difficult to determine than ever because adversaries are constantly evolving new techniques and the expertise required to identify a sophisticated actor keeps increasing.”

This doesn't mean that Recorded Future drops no hints of its own. It notes that this was a sophisticated two-pronged attack probably involving an earlier malware attack designed to steal credentials to be used during the opening ceremony against both the organizers and the infrastructure providers. In other words, it could only be achieved by a highly resourced attacker. 

The attack's purpose was disruption rather than absolute destruction. While systems were wiped, they were left able to reboot -- allowing the possibility of eventual data recovery and reinstatement. There is no immediately apparent attempt at extortion -- removing financial motivation and leaving the probability of political motivation.

The 'hints' contained in the code similarity point variously at Russia, China and North Korea. Recorded Future adds another possibility: "The co-occurrence of code overlap in the malware may be indicative of a false flag operation, attempting to dilute evidence and confuse researchers." In other words, without access to 5Eyes-quality wiretaps and intercepted voice conversations (which intelligence agencies would be unwilling to reveal) it is all but impossible to attribute this, or any other cyber-attack, with 100% confidence.

As Recorded Future concludes, "For the time being, attribution remains inconclusive."

Related: The Increasing Effect of Geopolitics on Cybersecurity 

Related: Gold Dragon Implant Linked to Pyeongchang Olympics Attacks 

Related: Geopolitical Context a Prerequisite for Finished Intelligence

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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.