I recently did an interview with RT‘s Going Underground programme, presented by Afshin Rattansi. We talked about the recently-discovered highly sophisticated malware Regin, and whether GCHQ or some other nation state could be behind it. The entire episode can be watched here. For more background information about Regin, you can read my article about it.
In 2010, Belgacom, the Belgian telecommunications company was hacked. This attack was discovered in September 2013, and has been going on for years. We know that this attack is the work of Western intelligence, more specifically, GCHQ, thanks to documents from Edward Snowden. This operation was called Operation Socialist. Now, however, we know a little bit more about how exactly this attack was done, and by what means. Internet connections from employees of Belgacom were sent to a fake LinkedIn page that was used to infect their computers with malware, called “implants” in GCHQ parlance. Now we know that Regin is the name given to the highly complex malware that seems to have been used during Operation Socialist.
Symantec recently reported on this malware (the full technical paper (PDF) can be found here), and it’s behaviour is highly complex. It is able to adapt to very specific missions and the authors have made tremendous effort to make it hard to detect. The malware is able to adapt and change, and since most of anti-virus detection relies on heuristics, or specific fingerprints of known malware, Regin was able to fool anti-virus software and stay undetected. However, Symantec put two and two together and has now revealed some of Regin’s inner workings.
The infections have ranged from telecoms and internet backbones (20% of infections), to hospitality (hotels, etc.), energy, the airlines, and research sectors but the vast majority of infections has been of private individuals or small businesses (48%). Also, the countries targeted are diverse, but the vast majority of attacks is directed against the Russian Federation (28%) and Saudi Arabia (24%).
The Regin malware works very much like a framework, which the attackers can use to inject various types of code, called “payloads” to do very specific things like capturing screen-shots, taking control of your mouse, stealing passwords, monitoring your network traffic and recovering files. Several Remote Access Trojans (also known as RATs) have been found, although even more complex payloads have also been found in the wild, like a Microsoft IIS web server traffic monitor (this makes it easy to spy on who visits a certain website etcetera). Another example of a highly complex payload that has been found is malware to sniff administration panels of mobile cellphone base station controllers.
How Regin Works
As mentioned above, Regin works as a modular framework, where the attackers can turn on/off certain elements and load specific code, called a “payload,” to create a Regin version that is specifically suited to a specific mission. Note that it is not certain whether all payloads have been discovered, and that there may be more than the ones specified in the report.
Regin does not appear to target any specific industrial sector, but infections have been found across the board, but mostly in telecom and private individuals and small businesses. Currently, it is not known what infection vectors can possibly be used to infect a specific target with the Regin malware, but one could for instance think of tricking the target into clicking on a certain link in an e-mail, visiting spoof websites, or maybe through a vulnerable application installed on the victim’s computer, which can be used to infect the target with Regin. In one instance, according to the Symantec report, a victim was infected through Yahoo! Instant Messenger. During Operation Socialist, GCHQ used a fake LinkedIn page to trick Belgacom engineers into installing the malware. So one can expect infection to take place along those lines, but other possibilities may of course exist.
Regin has six stages in its architecture, called Stage 0 to Stage 5 in the Symantec report. First, a dropper trojan horse will install the malware on the target’s computer (Stage 0), then it loads several drivers (Stage 1 and 2), loads compression, encryption, networking, and EVFS (encrypted file container) code (Stage 3), then it loads the encrypted file container and loads some additional kernel drivers, plus the payloads (Stage 4), and in the final stage (Stage 5) it loads the main payload and the necessary data files for it to operate.
The malware seems to be aimed primarily against computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, as all of the files discussed in the Symantec report are highly Windows-specific. But there may be payloads out there which target GNU/Linux or OS X computers. The full extent of the malware has not been fully revealed, and it will be interesting to find out more about the exact capabilities of this malware. The capabilities mentioned in the report are already vast and can be used to spy on people’s computers for extended periods of time, but I’m sure that there must be more payloads out there, I’m certain that we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible.
Regin is a highly-complex threat to computers around the world, and seems to be specifically suited towards large-scale data collection and intelligence gathering campaigns. The development would have required significant investments of time, money and resources, and might very well have taken a few years. Some components of Regin were traced back all the way to 2003.
Western Intelligence Origins?
In recent years, various governments, like the Chinese government, and the Russian government, have been implicated in various hacking attempts and attacks on Western infrastructure. In the article linked here, the FBI accuses the Russians of hacking for the purpose of economic espionage. However, Western governments also engage in digital warfare and espionage, not just for national security purposes (which is a term that has never been defined legally), but they also engage in economic espionage. In the early 1990s, as part of the ECHELON programme, the NSA intercepted communications between Airbus and the Saudi Arabian national airline. They were negotiating contracts with the Saudis, and the NSA passed information on to Boeing which was able to deliver a more competitive proposal, and due to this development, Airbus lost the $6 billion dollar contract to Boeing. This has been confirmed in the European Parliament Report on ECHELON from 2001. Regin also very clearly demonstrates that Western intelligence agencies are deeply involved in digital espionage and digital warfare.
Due to the highly-complex nature of the malware, and the significant amount of effort and time required to develop, test and deploy the Regin malware, together with the highly-specific nature of the various payloads and the modularity of the system, it is highly likely that a state actor was behind the Regin malware. Also, significant effort went into making the system very stealthy and hard for anti-virus software to detect. It was carefully engineered to circumvent anti-virus software’s heuristic detection algorithms and furthermore, some effort was put into making the Regin malware difficult to fingerprint (due to its modular nature)
Furthermore, when looking at the recently discovered attacks, and more especially where the victims are geographically located, it seems that the vast majority of attacks were aimed against the Russian Federation, and Saudi Arabia.
According to The Intercept and Ronald Prins from Dutch security company Fox-IT, there is no doubt that GCHQ and NSA are behind the Regin malware. Der Spiegel revealed that NSA malware had infected the computer networks of the European Union. That might very well been the same malware.
A similar case of state-sponsored malware appeared in June 2010. In the case of Stuxnet, a disproportionate amount of Iranian industrial site were targeted. According to Symantec, which has published various reports on Stuxnet, Stuxnet was used in one instance to change the speed of about 1,000 gas-spinning centrifuges at the Iranian nuclear power plant at Natanz, thereby sabotaging the research done by Iranian scientists. This covert manipulation could have caused an explosion at this nuclear facility.
Given the fact that Israel and the United States are very much against Iran developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes, thinking Iran is developing nuclear weapons instead of power plants, together with Stuxnet’s purpose to attack industrial sites, amongst those, nuclear sites in Iran, strongly indicates that the US and/or Israeli governments are behind the Stuxnet malware. Both of these countries have the capabilities to develop it, and in fact, they started to think about this project way back in 2005, when the earliest variants of Stuxnet were created.
Dangers of State-Sponsored Malware
The dangers of this state-sponsored malware is of course that should it be discovered, it may very well prompt the companies, individuals or states that the surveillance is targeted against to take countermeasures, leading to a digital arms race. This may subsequently lead to war, especially when a nation’s critical infrastructure is targeted.
The dangers of states creating malware like this and letting it out in the wild is that it compromises not only security, but also our very safety. Security gets compromised when bugs are left unsolved and back doors built in to let the spies in, and let malware do its work. This affects the safety of all of us. Government back doors and malware is not guaranteed to be used only by governments. Others can get a hold of the malware as well, and security vulnerabilities can be used by others than just spies. Think criminals who are after credit card details, or steal identities which are subsequently used for nefarious purposes.
Governments hacking other nations’ critical infrastructure would constitute an act of war I think. Nowadays every nation worth its salt has set up a digital warfare branch, where exploits are bought, malware developed and deployed. Once you start causing millions of Euros worth of damage to other nations’ infrastructure, you are on a slippery slope. Other countries may “hack back” and this will inevitably lead to a digital arms race, the damage of which does not only affect government computers and infrastructure, but also citizens’ computers and systems, corporations, and in some cases, even our lives. The US attack on Iran’s nuclear installations with the Stuxnet malware was incredibly dangerous and could have caused severe accidents to happen. Think of what would happen had a nuclear meltdown occurred. But nuclear installations are not the only ones, there’s other facilities as well which may come under attacks, hospitals for instance.
Using malware to attack and hack other countries’ infrastructure is incredibly dangerous and can only lead to more problems. Nothing has ever been solved by it. It will cause a shady exploits market to flourish which will mean that less and less critical exploits get fixed. Clearly, these are worth a lot of money, and many people that were previously pointing out vulnerabilities and supplying patches to software vendors are now selling these security vulnerabilities off on the black market.
Security vulnerabilities need to be addressed across the board, so that all of us can be safer, instead of the spooks using software bugs, vulnerabilities and back doors against us, and deliberately leaving open gaping holes for criminals to use as well.