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Sofacy Attacks Overlap With Other State-Sponsored Operations

Kurt Baumgartner details latest Sofacy attacks at Kaspersky SAS

CANCUN - KASPERSKY SECURITY ANALYST SUMMIT - Attacks carried out by a Russian threat group appear to overlap with campaigns conducted by other cyberspies, including ones linked by researchers to China and the United States.

Kaspersky Lab revealed last month that the Russian threat actor known as Sofacy, APT28, Fancy Bear, Pawn Storm, Sednit and Strontium had shifted its focus from NATO member countries and Ukraine to Central Asia and further east, including China.

On Friday, at Kaspersky’s Security Analyst Summit (SAS), researcher Kurt Baumgartner revealed that the group appears to be particularly interested in military, defense and diplomatic entities in the far east.

Baumgartner also revealed that the attacks launched by Sofacy sometimes overlap with the operations of other state-sponsored cyberspies in terms of victims.

For instance, researchers discovered Sofacy’s Zerbrocy malware on machines that had also been compromised by Mosquito, a backdoor associated with Turla, a different threat actor linked to Russia. Shared victims include diplomatic and commercial organizations in Europe and Asia.

Sofacy’s SPLM malware (aka CHOPSTICK and X-Agent) was found on devices that had also been infected with other Turla malware, which often precedes SPLM.

SPLM has also been spotted on the same systems as malware known to have been used by a China-linked actor known as Danti.

According to Kaspersky, overlaps were generally found on systems belonging to government, technology, science, and military organizations in or based in Central Asia.

Another interesting overlap was between Sofacy and the English-speaking Lamberts group, which is also known as Longhorn. Security firms revealed last year that this cyber espionage group had been using some of the Vault 7 tools leaked by WikiLeaks. These tools are believed to have been developed and used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Kaspersky said it had identified Sofacy backdoors and malware associated with the Lamberts, specifically Grey Lambert, on a server belonging to a military and aerospace conglomerate in China.

Researchers admit, however, that the presence of both Lamberts and Sofacy malware on the server could simply mean that the former planted a false flag, considering that the original delivery vector for the Sofacy tool remains unknown. It’s also possible that the Russian group exploited a previously unknown vulnerability, or that it somehow harnessed the Grey Lambert malware to download its own tools. The most likely scenario, according to experts, is that the Sofacy malware was delivered using an unknown PowerShell script or a legitimate app in which the attackers discovered a flaw.

“Sofacy is sometimes portrayed as wild and reckless, but as seen under our visibility, the group can be pragmatic, measured and agile. Their activity in the East has been largely under-reported, but they are clearly not the only threat actor interested in this region, or even in the same targets,” Baumgartner said. “As the threat landscape grows ever more crowded and complex, we may encounter more examples of target overlap and it could explain why many threat actors check victim systems for the presence of other intruders before fully launching their attacks.”

Kaspersky recently spotted the SPLM malware being used in an attack aimed at major air defense organization in China, while the Zebrocy tool has been used in high volume campaigns targeting entities in Armenia, Turkey, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Japan and China.

Related: Russia-Linked Spies Deliver Malware via DDE Attack

Related: Russian 'Fancy Bear' Hackers Abuse Blogspot for Phishing

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Eduard Kovacs 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.