WINDSHIFT Hackers Target Government Agency in the Middle East

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Ionut Arghire

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A recently discovered threat actor was observed targeting a Middle Eastern government agency on several occasions over the course of last year, Palo Alto Networks security researchers reveal. 

Referred to as WINDSHIFT, the surveillance-focused threat actor is believed to have remained unnoticed for a long time, and to have hacked other actors to re-use their malware, which helped it stay unnoticed. 

In a report from last year (PDF), Dark Matter said WINDSHIFT was observed launching sophisticated and unpredictable spear-phishing attacks against specific individuals and rarely targeting corporate environments.

The group’s Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) were said to resemble those of Bahamut, a threat actor security researchers also linked to Urpage last year

Following a long recon period, which could take several years, the group would attempt to steal the victim’s credentials by sending fake emails prompting the victim to reset their password for Gmail , Apple iCloud, Etisalat (main ISP in UAE), or professional emails. 

Should the credential harvesting fail, the actor then attempts to infect the victim with malware, also via email. The actor would then attempt to erase all traces of the attacks by shifting to a new infrastructure, gaining access to new malware, and shutting down malicious domains. 

The cyber-espionage group is known to be using macOS-targeting malware, namely WINDTAIL backdoor for file exfiltration, WINDTAPE backdoor for taking screenshots, and WINDTAIL downloader for WINDTAPE. The group is also believed to be using WINDDROP, a Windows-targeting downloader. 

Now, Palo Alto Networks saysit has observed WINDSHIFTattacks unfolded at a Middle Eastern government agency between January and May of 2018. 

In early January 2018, an initial attack featuring a WINDTAIL sample was observed originating from the remote IP address 109.235.51[.]110 to a single internal IP address within the government agency. 

The IP was associated with the domain flux2key[.]com, and the malware’s command and control (C&C) server IP address 109.235.51[.]153 was associated with the domain string2me[.]com, both known WINDSHIFT domains. 

Palo Alto Networks says that several other WINDTAIL samples originating from 109.235.51[.]110 were observed being directed at the same internal IP address from January through May 2018. 

All related WINDTAIL samples were Mac OSX app bundles in zip archives. One of them had C&C server IP address 185.25.50[.]189, which was associated with the domain domforworld[.]com at the time of activity.

Palo Alto Networks says it “assesses with high confidence that both the IP address 25.50[.]189 and the domain domforworld[.]com is associated with WINDSHIFT activity. Additionally, the IP addresses 109.235.51[.]110 and 109.235.51[.]153, corresponding to the previously validated WINDSHIFT domains flux2key[.]com and string2me[.]com, respectively, were also observed in use during this campaign.”

One of the attacker-owned IP addresses (109.235.50[.]191) was previously associated with Operation Hangover (which was analyzed several years ago), strengthening the previously identified relation between Operation Hangover and WINDSHIFT activity.

Palo Alto Networks also believes the attackers were unable to establish persistence within the targeted environment, given the multiple inbound WINDTAIL samples directed at the same internal IP address. 

RelatedResearchers Draw Connections Between APTs

RelatedThreat Actor Targets Middle East With DNS Redirections

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