Targeting of Olympic Games IT Infrastructure Remains Unattributed
By Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, Priscilla Moriuchi, and Greg Lesnewich on February 14, 2018
- Olympic Destroyer should be treated with a high level of concern, due to the destructive nature of the malware and its potent mechanisms to spread laterally.
- Commentary and analysis surrounding malware code similarities of Olympic Destroyer have yielded many leads but no conclusive attribution.
- The co-occurrence of disparate code overlaps in the malware may be indicative of a false flag operation, attempting to dilute evidence and confuse researchers.
A major telecommunications and IT provider was targeted by an unknown threat actor as part of an operation directed at disrupting the Olympic Games in PyeongChang. Recorded Future identified hardcoded credentials for the IT provider embedded in the Olympic Destroyer malware used in this campaign. Small amounts of code overlap connect the malware to numerous, disparate threat groups, which ultimately does not help to identify the threat actor responsible for developing the Olympic Destroyer malware.
A major telecommunications and IT provider was targeted by an unknown threat actor as part of targeting the Olympic Games in PyeongChang prior to December 2017.
The malware, commonly referred to as Olympic Destroyer, was initially identified by Talos researchers. Researchers have theorized that Olympic Destroyer was used to disrupt the Olympic Games opening ceremony on February 9. The destructive malware moves laterally within a network via Psexec and WMI, to infect hosts and render their data useless. Psexec and WMI are built-in Windows internal tools; Psexec is used to execute processes on other systems in a shared network, and WMI is used to automate tasks on remote systems. The malware also uses Mimikatz, a password-stealing tool, to extract credentials from a compromised machine, also allowing it to move across the target network. Microsoft researchers stated that there is also evidence of use of EternalRomance, a leaked exploit recently abused by ransomware as a propagation method, but we were unable to verify this claim.
Threat Analysis: A Two-Pronged Campaign
Recorded Future found an extended set of malware targeting the PyeongChang Games using an additional set of Active Directory credentials. The diversity of credentials and presence of a software key suggest that an early reconnaissance phase would likely involve an initial malware infection and not just simple credential phishing.
All samples of the Olympic Destroyer malware variant targeting the IT provider were timestamped five minutes prior to the compilation of the samples identified by Talos researchers as targeting the PyeongChang 2018 network. This suggests a parallel, two-pronged attempt to target the Olympics event, aimed at both organizers and infrastructure providers.
Additional unreported malware hashes are contained in the appendix below.
Note: Upon discovery of the hardcoded credentials, Recorded Future adhered to responsible disclosure practices, notified the relevant IT provider, and provided details of the campaign. An independent forensic investigation is underway and no damage is reported at this time.
Technical Analysis: Attribution Remains Elusive
One of the most innovative techniques currently employed by advanced research teams is hunting for code similarity at scale. Google researchers were the first to notably employ this technique to cluster previously unattributed campaigns like that of North Korean threat actor Scarcruft and WannaCry, ultimately tying both to the Lazarus Group. BAE researchers discovered the first overlaps in malware used by BlueNoroff employed in the Bangladesh SWIFT heist by noting use of a shared wiping function, once again pointing the finger at North Korea. Kaspersky researchers used this method to link the trojan targeting CCleaner to the Axiom group, and so on.
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.
Olympic Destroyer remains unclustered and unattributed. Because this technique still requires expert interpretation, casual or incomplete analysis can yield seemingly cohesive narratives, for example, pointing in the direction of North Korea, China, or Russia. This occurs when the code is looked at with a low enough correlative threshold.
Below are some disparate observations derived from the Olympic Destroyer malware based on code similarity analysis:
China: Intezer researchers were the first to point to fragments of code similarity with diverse threat actors in the general Chinese cluster, including APT3 (UPS), APT10 (menuPass), and APT12 (IXESHE).
North Korea: 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.
Before one concludes that these widely diverse threat actors have formed an axis of evil intent on disrupting the Olympics, we need to take a step back and look at our research techniques.
Code similarity historically yielded significant research findings in clustering new campaigns to known threat actors and continues to hold great promise for research and malware classification. However, it does require scrutiny and discernment when the similarity threshold is so low as to focus on a few functions, or less. As with previous attributory methods, researchers must remain vigilant to the ever-looming threat of adversary adaptability.
Israeli nation-state-sponsored threat actor Flame leveraged a previously theoretical cryptographic attack to spread laterally. Threat group Turla lead incident responders astray by placing unrelated malware on their victims’ machines, and the Lamberts spliced random clean code to use as encryption keys in order to avoid accurate clustering. Our adversaries are resourceful. While fooling code similarity clustering takes significant effort and skill, we must consider it possible for determined, higher-tier attackers with the right motivations.
The operation to disrupt the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games was more extensive than originally reported, with both organizers and infrastructure targeted simultaneously. The wealth of spreading mechanisms embedded within the malware suggests an aggressive effort to spread within these networks and cause maximum damage. The co-occurrence of code overlap in the malware may be indicative of a false flag operation, attempting to dilute evidence and confuse researchers. For the time being, attribution remains inconclusive.
To view a full list of the associated indicators of compromise, download the appendix.