Schneier on Security: Blog Entries Tagged malware

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PROPagate Code Injection Seen in the Wild

Last year, researchers wrote about a new Windows code injection technique called PROPagate. Last week, it was first seen in malware:

This technique abuses the SetWindowsSubclass function -- a process used to install or update subclass windows running on the system -- and can be used to modify the properties of windows running in the same session. This can be used to inject code and drop files while also hiding the fact it has happened, making it a useful, stealthy attack.

It's likely that the attackers have observed publically available posts on PROPagate in order to recreate the technique for their own malicious ends.

Posted on July 9, 2018 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Router Vulnerability and the VPNFilter Botnet

On May 25, the FBI asked us all to reboot our routers. The story behind this request is one of sophisticated malware and unsophisticated home-network security, and it's a harbinger of the sorts of pervasive threats ­ from nation-states, criminals and hackers ­ that we should expect in coming years.

VPNFilter is a sophisticated piece of malware that infects mostly older home and small-office routers made by Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, QNAP and TP-Link. (For a list of specific models, click here.) It's an impressive piece of work. It can eavesdrop on traffic passing through the router ­ specifically, log-in credentials and SCADA traffic, which is a networking protocol that controls power plants, chemical plants and industrial systems ­ attack other targets on the Internet and destructively "kill" its infected device. It is one of a very few pieces of malware that can survive a reboot, even though that's what the FBI has requested. It has a number of other capabilities, and it can be remotely updated to provide still others. More than 500,000 routers in at least 54 countries have been infected since 2016.

Because of the malware's sophistication, VPNFilter is believed to be the work of a government. The FBI suggested the Russian government was involved for two circumstantial reasons. One, a piece of the code is identical to one found in another piece of malware, called BlackEnergy, that was used in the December 2015 attack against Ukraine's power grid. Russia is believed to be behind that attack. And two, the majority of those 500,000 infections are in Ukraine and controlled by a separate command-and-control server. There might also be classified evidence, as an FBI affidavit in this matter identifies the group behind VPNFilter as Sofacy, also known as APT28 and Fancy Bear. That's the group behind a long list of attacks, including the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Two companies, Cisco and Symantec, seem to have been working with the FBI during the past two years to track this malware as it infected ever more routers. The infection mechanism isn't known, but we believe it targets known vulnerabilities in these older routers. Pretty much no one patches their routers, so the vulnerabilities have remained, even if they were fixed in new models from the same manufacturers.

On May 30, the FBI seized control of toknowall.com, a critical VPNFilter command-and-control server. This is called "sinkholing," and serves to disrupt a critical part of this system. When infected routers contact toknowall.com, they will no longer be contacting a server owned by the malware's creators; instead, they'll be contacting a server owned by the FBI. This doesn't entirely neutralize the malware, though. It will stay on the infected routers through reboot, and the underlying vulnerabilities remain, making the routers susceptible to reinfection with a variant controlled by a different server.

If you want to make sure your router is no longer infected, you need to do more than reboot it, the FBI's warning notwithstanding. You need to reset the router to its factory settings. That means you need to reconfigure it for your network, which can be a pain if you're not sophisticated in these matters. If you want to make sure your router cannot be reinfected, you need to update the firmware with any security patches from the manufacturer. This is harder to do and may strain your technical capabilities, though it's ridiculous that routers don't automatically download and install firmware updates on their own. Some of these models probably do not even have security patches available. Honestly, the best thing to do if you have one of the vulnerable models is to throw it away and get a new one. (Your ISP will probably send you a new one free if you claim that it's not working properly. And you should have a new one, because if your current one is on the list, it's at least 10 years old.)

So if it won't clear out the malware, why is the FBI asking us to reboot our routers? It's mostly just to get a sense of how bad the problem is. The FBI now controls toknowall.com. When an infected router gets rebooted, it connects to that server to get fully reinfected, and when it does, the FBI will know. Rebooting will give it a better idea of how many devices out there are infected.

Should you do it? It can't hurt.

Internet of Things malware isn't new. The 2016 Mirai botnet, for example, created by a lone hacker and not a government, targeted vulnerabilities in Internet-connected digital video recorders and webcams. Other malware has targeted Internet-connected thermostats. Lots of malware targets home routers. These devices are particularly vulnerable because they are often designed by ad hoc teams without a lot of security expertise, stay around in networks far longer than our computers and phones, and have no easy way to patch them.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Russians targeted routers to build a network of infected computers for follow-on cyber operations. I'm sure many governments are doing the same. As long as we allow these insecure devices on the Internet ­ and short of security regulations, there's no way to stop them ­ we're going to be vulnerable to this kind of malware.

And next time, the command-and-control server won't be so easy to disrupt.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post

EDITED TO ADD: The malware is more capable than we previously thought.

Posted on June 11, 2018 at 6:19 AMView Comments

Adding Backdoors at the Chip Level

Interesting research into undetectably adding backdoors into computer chips during manufacture: "Stealthy dopant-level hardware Trojans: extended version," also available here:

Abstract: In recent years, hardware Trojans have drawn the attention of governments and industry as well as the scientific community. One of the main concerns is that integrated circuits, e.g., for military or critical-infrastructure applications, could be maliciously manipulated during the manufacturing process, which often takes place abroad. However, since there have been no reported hardware Trojans in practice yet, little is known about how such a Trojan would look like and how difficult it would be in practice to implement one. In this paper we propose an extremely stealthy approach for implementing hardware Trojans below the gate level, and we evaluate their impact on the security of the target device. Instead of adding additional circuitry to the target design, we insert our hardware Trojans by changing the dopant polarity of existing transistors. Since the modified circuit appears legitimate on all wiring layers (including all metal and polysilicon), our family of Trojans is resistant to most detection techniques, including fine-grain optical inspection and checking against "golden chips". We demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach by inserting Trojans into two designs -- a digital post-processing derived from Intel's cryptographically secure RNG design used in the Ivy Bridge processors and a side-channel resistant SBox implementation­ -- and by exploring their detectability and their effects on security.

The moral is that this kind of technique is very difficult to detect.

EDITED TO ADD (4/13): Apologies. I didn't realize that this paper was from 2014.

Posted on March 26, 2018 at 9:26 AMView Comments

Malware from Space

Since you don't have enough to worry about, here's a paper postulating that space aliens could send us malware capable of destroying humanity.

Abstract: A complex message from space may require the use of computers to display, analyze and understand. Such a message cannot be decontaminated with certainty, and technical risks remain which can pose an existential threat. Complex messages would need to be destroyed in the risk averse case.

I think we're more likely to be enslaved by malicious AIs.

Posted on March 2, 2018 at 6:13 AMView Comments

Water Utility Infected by Cryptocurrency Mining Software

A water utility in Europe has been infected by cryptocurrency mining software. This is a relatively new attack: hackers compromise computers and force them to mine cryptocurrency for them. This is the first time I've seen it infect SCADA systems, though.

It seems that this mining software is benign, and doesn't affect the performance of the hacked computer. (A smart virus doesn't kill its host.) But that's not going to always be the case.

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:55 AMView Comments

Signed Malware

Stuxnet famously used legitimate digital certificates to sign its malware. A research paper from last year found that the practice is much more common than previously thought.

Now, researchers have presented proof that digitally signed malware is much more common than previously believed. What's more, it predated Stuxnet, with the first known instance occurring in 2003. The researchers said they found 189 malware samples bearing valid digital signatures that were created using compromised certificates issued by recognized certificate authorities and used to sign legitimate software. In total, 109 of those abused certificates remain valid. The researchers, who presented their findings Wednesday at the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, found another 136 malware samples signed by legitimate CA-issued certificates, although the signatures were malformed.

The results are significant because digitally signed software is often able to bypass User Account Control and other Windows measures designed to prevent malicious code from being installed. Forged signatures also represent a significant breach of trust because certificates provide what's supposed to be an unassailable assurance to end users that the software was developed by the company named in the certificate and hasn't been modified by anyone else. The forgeries also allow malware to evade antivirus protections. Surprisingly, weaknesses in the majority of available AV programs prevented them from detecting known malware that was digitally signed even though the signatures weren't valid.

Posted on February 2, 2018 at 6:38 AMView Comments

Jackpotting Attacks Against US ATMs

Brian Krebs is reporting sophisticated jackpotting attacks against US ATMs. The attacker gains physical access to the ATM, plants malware using specialized electronics, and then later returns and forces the machine to dispense all the cash it has inside.

The Secret Service alert explains that the attackers typically use an endoscope -- a slender, flexible instrument traditionally used in medicine to give physicians a look inside the human body -- to locate the internal portion of the cash machine where they can attach a cord that allows them to sync their laptop with the ATM's computer.

"Once this is complete, the ATM is controlled by the fraudsters and the ATM will appear Out of Service to potential customers," reads the confidential Secret Service alert.

At this point, the crook(s) installing the malware will contact co-conspirators who can remotely control the ATMs and force the machines to dispense cash.

"In previous Ploutus.D attacks, the ATM continuously dispensed at a rate of 40 bills every 23 seconds," the alert continues. Once the dispense cycle starts, the only way to stop it is to press cancel on the keypad. Otherwise, the machine is completely emptied of cash, according to the alert.

Lots of details in the article.

Posted on February 1, 2018 at 6:23 AMView Comments

New Malware Hijacks Cryptocurrency Mining

This is a clever attack.

After gaining control of the coin-mining software, the malware replaces the wallet address the computer owner uses to collect newly minted currency with an address controlled by the attacker. From then on, the attacker receives all coins generated, and owners are none the wiser unless they take time to manually inspect their software configuration.

So far it hasn't been very profitable, but it -- or some later version -- eventually will be.

Posted on January 23, 2018 at 6:41 AMView Comments

Skygofree: New Government Malware for Android

Kaspersky Labs is reporting on a new piece of sophisticated malware:

We observed many web landing pages that mimic the sites of mobile operators and which are used to spread the Android implants. These domains have been registered by the attackers since 2015. According to our telemetry, that was the year the distribution campaign was at its most active. The activities continue: the most recently observed domain was registered on October 31, 2017. Based on our KSN statistics, there are several infected individuals, exclusively in Italy.

Moreover, as we dived deeper into the investigation, we discovered several spyware tools for Windows that form an implant for exfiltrating sensitive data on a targeted machine. The version we found was built at the beginning of 2017, and at the moment we are not sure whether this implant has been used in the wild.

It seems to be Italian. Ars Technica speculates that it is related to Hacking Team:

That's not to say the malware is perfect. The various versions examined by Kaspersky Lab contained several artifacts that provide valuable clues about the people who may have developed and maintained the code. Traces include the domain name h3g.co, which was registered by Italian IT firm Negg International. Negg officials didn't respond to an email requesting comment for this post. The malware may be filling a void left after the epic hack in 2015 of Hacking Team, another Italy-based developer of spyware.

BoingBoing post.

Posted on January 22, 2018 at 12:06 PMView Comments

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