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Kaspersky Labs Discovers 'Red October' Malware Spy Ring

Kaspersky Labs Discovers
January 14, 2013 1:55PM

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The leading number of Red October infections discovered -- 35 -- is in the Russian Federation, suggesting Red October is not run by the Russian government. In fact, Kaspersky Labs said although Red October is gathering "classified information and geopolitical intelligence," there is "no evidence linking this with a nation-state sponsored attack."

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It sounds like a remake of the Tom Clancy novel by the same name, but "Red October" is the name of an advanced cyber espionage network that is targeting governments and other organizations around the world. The network was discovered by the security firm Kaspersky Labs, which announced its findings Monday.

The firm said its researchers have spent several months analyzing malware from the organization, which, since at least 2007, targets organizations primarily in central Asia and in Eastern European countries that were formerly in the Soviet Union, as well as ones in Western Europe and North America.

Hiding the 'True Mothership'

Kaspersky said the attackers have conducted these operations for at least five years, and stolen data, such as security credentials, are reused in later attacks. More than five dozen domain names have been created to control the network of infected machines, utilizing hosting locations in Germany, Russia and other countries.

Targets have included embassies and other diplomatic and governmental locations, research institutions, trade and commerce organizations, nuclear and energy research, oil and gas companies, aerospace and military. Hundreds of infections have been located worldwide.

The firm said that the actual command-and-control infrastructure is a chain of proxy servers that hide the location of the "true mothership command and control server." The network is designed to allow an attacker to recover access to infected machines through other communication channels, if need be. A "resurrection" function enables a malware module to be reinstalled, even if it's been removed.

Red October, which is also called Rocra for short, is designed to steal data from mobile devices, enterprise network equipment, already-deleted files recovered from removable disk drives, e-mail databases from Outlook or POP/IMAP servers, or local FTP servers, in addition to workstations.

'Russian-Speaking Origins'

The observed attacks exploited vulnerabilities in Excel or Word, and, against Tibetan activists and Asia-based military and energy targets, used spear-phishing attacks. Spear phishing is fraudulent e-mail that appears to originate from someone within an organization, and attempts to trick the recipient into revealing confidential data or clicking on a link.

Because of registration data in the command-and-control servers and clues left in executables, Kaspersky, whose world headquarters are in Moscow, said it "strongly" believes the attackers "have Russian-speaking origins." The network was dubbed Red October by Kaspersky because of the use of the Russian language in the code.

Interestingly, the leading number of infections discovered -- 35 -- is in the Russian Federation, suggesting that this operation is not run by the Russian government. In fact, Kaspersky said that there is "no evidence linking this with a nation-state sponsored attack." The main purpose of the attacks appears to be gathering "classified information and geopolitical intelligence," although the use is unknown.

While the malware has been developed by Russian-speaking programmers, the exploits themselves appear to have been handled by Chinese hackers.

The company said it first investigated the Rocra attacks in October of last year at the request of an unnamed "partner," who chooses to remain anonymous. Kaspersky regularly unveils its investigations into major malware attacks, including the Flame virus that apparently attacked computers in Iran. There is no apparent connection between Flame and Red October, the security firm said.

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