Three Days of The Condor... With Malware

Friday, September 07, 2012

Infosec Island Admin


Turner: Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?
Higgins: Are you crazy?
Turner: Am I?
Higgins: Look, Turner…
Turner: Do we have plans?
Higgins: No. Absolutely not. We have games. That’s all. We play games. What if? How many men? What would it take? Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a regime? That’s what we’re paid to do.
Turner: So Atwood just took the games too seriously. He was really going to do it, wasn’t he?
Higgins: A renegade operation. Atwood knew 54/12 would never authorize it, not with the heat on the company.
Turner: What if there hadn’t been any heat? Suppose I hadn’t stumbled on their plan?
Higgins: Different ballgame. Fact is, there was nothing wrong with the plan. Oh, the plan was all right, the plan would’ve worked.
Turner: Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?
Higgins: No. It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?
Turner: Ask them.
Higgins: Not now — then! Ask ‘em when they’re running out. Ask ‘em when there’s no heat in their homes and they’re cold. Ask ‘em when their engines stop. Ask ‘em when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. You wanna know something? They won’t want us to ask ‘em. They’ll just want us to get it for ‘em!
Turner: Boy, have you found a home. There were seven people killed, Higgins.
Higgins: The company didn’t order it.
Turner: Atwood did. Atwood did. And who the hell is Atwood? He’s you. He’s all you guys. Seven people killed, and you play fraking games!
Higgins: Right. And the other side does, too. That’s why we can’t let you stay outside.

The Geopolitics of Fossil Fuels

Since the discovery of fossil fuels (oil and the derivative of gas from it) we have had a real love affair with it. Though it was tough to get out of the ground and then refine into a usable product we decided that it was the best alternative to keeping our lights on and our cars running.

Since then, the resources have become the aegis of foreign and domestic policies globally, and likely will continue this way until the last drop of fuel is burned by some car somewhere. It’s these policies that I believe are driving the recent attacks on oil and gas firms within the Middle East recently.

There may be some tit for tat as well, and maybe a warning to certain players, but, overall, it seems to me that a game is being played. Of course, all the games have been being played in the region of the Middle East because of the need for fossil fuels, anyone who says otherwise I think, well, is delusional.

Whether or not you are a “tipping point” believer, in general, we have seen over the years many instances where the Med has affected and still affects today, the price of gas and thus, the cascade effect prices on just about everything because we are dependent on the gas to move things, to grow things, to.. Well you get the point right? No gas means no economy really today.

So, this is an imperative and those countries seeking to gain access to said fuel resources would not be above trying to get a competitive edge over others, never mind the possibilities of gaming the owners of the resource from the start right? Add to this the pressures today of the instability in the region (and really, when has it ever been really steady?) and you have quite the motive to use espionage to get that advantage and deny others the access they too desire.

It’s with this in mind that I have been sitting back and watching the events with Saudi Aramco and RasGas with some interest. I have been reading the news reports as well as the malware assessments and cannot help but see a parallel with the movie “Three Days of the Condor” from 1975.

The story line moves along the lines of an analyst finding an unsanctioned plot to overthrow a government in the Middle East over oil. This film stuck with me since seeing it as a kid in the 80′s and I have quoted it before in posts on other things. This time around though, I think we are seeing some more direct actions by persons unknown, to manipulate the playing field where oil or fuel resources are concerned..

Albeit with a modern twist for today.

Spygames  with Malware

At least two types of malware are alleged to have penetrated Saudi Aramco and RASGAS in the last month or two. Not much is known about them, though Shamoon aka W32.Disttrack seems to have been pulled apart a bit by Symantec. Not much has been really made in the press over these attacks and those attacked have been quiet as well.

Both RasGas and Saudi Aramco though, made statements that none of their production or distribution systems were affected by the malware, a claim that they have not really backed up with facts I might add. However, as far as we can see thus far, those statements are overall true because there are no reports of system breakdowns in getting the product to and from the companies collectively.

As it would seem from the analysis thus far of Shamoon, the malware seems to be the run of the mill data thievery type that is almost COTS in a way. The more interesting bits seem to be around the “wiping” feature that was written into it. Why the malware was made to wipe the MBR is a bit of a mystery to me and seems rather amateurish in a way that leads me to believe either someone is playing it very smart, or, they are just malicious.

I can’t be sure which…

While the method of wiping is not as exotic as the so called “wiper”  Shamoon corrupts the MBR of the system and game over. I have not seen in any of the data so far (via googling) a means of triggering the wipe sequence on Shamoon though. One wonders if it’s just timed out or is there some trigger if it is detected or tampered with? Also, it is interesting to note that the name “Shamoon or Simon” is from a folder listed in the malware as well as the fact that this was targeted to the “Arabian Gulf” as the wiper module alludes to as well.

So, this seems to have been a targeted attack from these bits of data and the fact that it’s penetration out in the wild is low from what I have seen online. It is likely that this was initiated by a directed phishing attack at the companies afflicted and worked it’s way through their networks. Networks by the way, that may not in fact have been separate from the ICS/SCADA networks, which it seems may not have been directly “affected” because the payload did not include any attacks on said systems. The only fallout would likely come from a PC getting wiped which could easily be re-imaged or replaced with a working copy.

Still.. What was the goal here? What data was taken? In the case of both Saudi Aramco and RasGas, a look with Google (Google Fu) shows that both companies had quite a bit of data hanging out there to exploit and use in an attack. Today though, most of their data has been redacted, but, you still can get some cached copies of interesting tidbits.

Given that they were loose before, one might imagine that they were a rich target environment for the malware to ex-filtrate all kinds of documents to the C&C server. It would take a lengthy investigation as to their market placement and any potential deals ongoing to give some more context I think, but doing so would be an interesting diversion to understand these attacks a bit better as to motive though.

The Possible Players in Shamoon/Wiper/UNSUB Malware Attacks

With all that said, then who would be the likely players here? Is this nation state? Is it corporate espionage and acts of attrition in an ongoing oil war? It’s hard to say really. One source indicated to me that perhaps it was a move by Russia to give the hint to Iran on some internecine plot over power plays in the region. I personally think that the whole “cutting sword of justice” claim that they took down Saudi Aramco is bunk but hey, maybe a cabal of hackers did this to… Well do what?

Perhaps there is more yet to be dumped online in a pastebin to give us the proper scope here. Overall though, it’s been really low key and not much has come out like I said on what was taken, what was done, and the damages to the systems/companies involved.

So where does that leave us regarding who did this? Well, pretty much where we stared, with supposition and guess work. Was this nation state? This is an interesting question. If it was nation state, could it have been a fledgling group, like say, the IRGC and it’s cyber hacking group recently formed? Would Iran benefit from such attacks? All good questions and something we should all ponder.

However, the most interesting point there might in fact be that since the Stuxnet genie was let out of the bottle, it was only a matter of time before actors like Iran would make their own variants and loose them upon others. In the case of Iran though, they too seem to have been hit with the same if not similar malware in recent days as well, but, this does not presuppose that they didn’t have a hand in it.

All in all, there just isn’t enough information to nail down a culprit or culprits.. But, it does show us a precedent that we should all worry about just as much as we should over certain instances of attacks against pockets of ICS/SCADA implementations. What I am talking about is blowback from attacks.


Blowback usually refers to consequences coming back on those who took the action in the first place. Here though, I am not only referring to those who carried out the malware attacks, but also on the rest of the world in certain scenarios like this. By attacking systems such as these, one could in fact cause market fluctuations depending on the markets and their jittery-ness.

In the case of the oil business, we have seen great changes in prices due to not only the control over the oil and it’s price by the cartels (Saudi) but also how the countries are feeling about their markets and the state of affairs in the world. If you start tinkering with companies of this kind and by the product of destroying infrastructure (or the perception of such) you will be affecting the prices at least for those companies directly. What if though, you were to hit more of them at the same time and cause not only damage but the “perception” of insecurity within the system of oil/gas production and distribution?

This time nothing much seems to have happened, but one can only say this because there isn’t much information out there as to what really took place on those systems and networks. What if this played out another way, with much more press and obvious damages? This would be worse and might occur the next time whether or not it was intended by the programming of the malware.

This all of course depends on the scope of the attacks and with that you have to wonder about nation state vs. non state actors here. The difference being, that a nation state may attack a wider variety of systems and companies as a precursor to war while the non state actors may just be looking for information or to hobble a competitor. Both however, could have unforeseen blowback from their actions.

What all of this says though, is that Pandora’s box has been opened. All the players are now taking the field, and many of them may not be ready to play a proper game… Shamoon did it’s thing, but it seems to be more a brute force tool than an elegant piece of code and a slick plan. The blowback though is yet to be determined.


Cross-posted from Krypt3ia

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