Private and public efforts to curb the use of spyware and activity of other “mercenary” groups have heated up over the past week, with the U.S. government taking additional action against spyware users and some of the world’s largest tech companies calling out international governments to do more.
The illegal use of spyware to target high-profile or at-risk individuals is a global problem, as highlighted by this article from The Register that Talos’ Nick Biasini just contributed to. This software can often track targets’ exact location, steal their messages and personal information, or even listen in on phone calls. And as we’ve written about, many Private Sector Offensive Actors (PSOAs) are developing spyware and selling it to whoever is willing to pay, regardless of what their motives are.
A group of nations including the U.S., U.K. and France, along with several Fortune 500 tech companies, signed an agreement Tuesday to work to limit the use of spyware across the globe and crack down harder on bad actors who are illegally selling and using the software. However, the language of the resolution seemed closer to aspirations than actual action.
For their part, the U.S. did roll out new restrictions on the visas of any foreign individuals who misuse commercial spyware. The restrictions could also affect anyone who makes the spyware, profits off its sale or facilitates the sale of the technology.
These are all positive steps in the right direction toward curbing the use and sale of commercial spyware, but I remain concerned that the tendrils of spyware are too deep in the security landscape at this point that we’ll be dealing with this issue for years to come.
Google’s security research group recently found that 20 of the 25 zero-day vulnerabilities Google TAG discovered that were being exploited in the wild in 2023 were exploited by commercial spyware vendors. In the same report, Google TAG said it was actively tracking at least 40 commercial spyware vendors — all with an unknown number of customers, users, creators and employees.
The general tenants of spyware are all around us, too. While not traditional commercial spyware that’s tracking journalists or dissidents, even just quiet trackers are being used all over the internet.
A report from 404 Media last month found that the apps of several popular sites like the 9gag forum and Kik messaging app were part of a massive network of ad tracking. Reporters found that ads inside each app are sending information to a powerful mass monitoring tool, which is then advertised and sold to national security agencies. This information can quietly build profiles out of users that could be used in many ways (though hopefully just for targeted ads, in the absolute best-case scenario), including tracking their hobbies, family members and physical location.
Meta’s popular social media sites Instagram and Facebook have their own sets of tracking tools that can even monitor users’ web activity outside of their apps and require users to manually turn that feature off. Some mercenary groups are even embedding spyware into online ads and spreading spyware with little to no protection on mobile devices.
Just as with ransomware, the problem of addressing spyware and PSOAs is going to take an international, public-private effort, and it certainly won’t be solved overnight. But I believe it will take more than good faith resolutions to change the way our internet activity is tracked, and how attackers can exploit that in a worst-case scenario.
One such way we can start taking steps to immediately curb the spread of spyware is with greater communication. Talos encourages any organization, public or private, to publicly share actionable information or detection content related to spyware discovered in the wild. Public disclosure is often limited in the number of technical details of how the spyware itself works or does not contain many IOCs.
If readers suspect their system(s) may have been compromised by commercial spyware or hack-for-hire groups, please consider notifying Talos’ research team at email@example.com to assist in furthering the community’s knowledge of these threats.
The one big thing
Cisco Talos discovered a new, stealthy espionage campaign that has likely persisted since at least March 2021. The observed activity affects an Islamic non-profit organization using backdoors for a previously unreported malware family named “Zardoor.” Talos believes an advanced threat actor is carrying out this attack, based on the deployment of the custom backdoor Zardoor, the use of modified reverse proxy tools, and the ability to evade detection for several years. In at least one attack, the actors have infected an Islamic charitable non-profit organization in Saudi Arabia, often exfiltrating data multiple times in a month.
Why do I care?
At this time, we have only discovered one compromised target, however, the threat actor’s ability to maintain long-term access to the victim’s network without discovery suggests there could be other victims that we don’t know about yet. This also is the work of a yet-to-be-discovered threat actor, as Talos cannot pin the exact TTPs onto a known threat actor. Zardoor is a dangerous backdoor that can remain undetected for extended periods, and without a ton of prior information about this actor, it’s tough to predict where they might pivot next.
So now what?
Talos has released new ClamAV signatures and Snort rules to protect against Zardoor and the actors’ actions. We don’t know what the initial access vector is, so it’s tough to give targeted advice on how to avoid this malware, but having any endpoint detection in place will block this backdoor.
Top security headlines of the week
Adversaries are actively exploiting three vulnerabilities in Ivanti’s VPN software, including one newly discovered over the weekend. Ivanti first disclosed two vulnerabilities on Jan. 22 affecting Ivanti’s Connect Secure and Policy Secure VPN products. Eventually, attackers took notice and started targeting unpatched instances of the software. Shortly after disclosure, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency only gave federal agencies 48 hours to disconnect any devices that used the affected software. Patches are now available for the three vulnerabilities, and users are encouraged to update as soon as possible. The CISA directive said that “agencies running the affected products must assume domain accounts associated with the affected products have been compromised” and said that agencies should reset “passwords twice for on premise [SIC] accounts, revoke Kerberos tickets, and then revoke tokens for cloud accounts in hybrid deployments” by March 1. It also said, “for cloud joined/registered devices, disable devices in the cloud to revoke the device tokens.” The newest vulnerability, CVE-2024-21893, is a server-side request forgery that could allow an attacker to access certain restricted resources without authentication. (Ars Technica, Decipher)
Apple addressed a security issue early in the life of their newly released Apple Vision Pro, a mixed-reality headset. Days after initial reviews for the product were published, Apple released its first security update for the headset, saying that a vulnerability in the WebKit browser engine “may have been exploited” in the wild. The vulnerability, CVE-2024-23222, also affects other Apple operating systems, including iOS and iPad OS. Vision Pro users also discovered that, before the software patch, they could not reset the password on their device without physically bringing the headset to a retail Apple store. The passcode, typically a series of digits for the headset, could only be reset if the users gave the physical device to Apple support or mailed it to AppleCare. However, Apple added the ability to reset the devices’ passcode in the same patch that fixed the aforementioned vulnerability. (TechCrunch, Bloomberg)
Can’t get enough Talos?
- February Threat Spotlight: Post Compromise Attacks
- How are user credentials stolen and used by threat actors?
- Talos Takes Ep. #171: How are attackers using malicious drivers in Windows to stay undetected?
Most prevalent malware files from Talos telemetry over the past week
SHA 256: 5e537dee6d7478cba56ebbcc7a695cae2609010a897d766ff578a4260c2ac9cf
Typical Filename: rcx4d83.tmp
Claimed Product: N/A
Detection Name: Win.Dropper.Pykspa::tpd
SHA 256: e4973db44081591e9bff5117946defbef6041397e56164f485cf8ec57b1d8934
Typical Filename: Wextract
Claimed Product: Internet Explorer
Detection Name: W32.File.MalParent
SHA 256: 4c3c7be970a08dd59e87de24590b938045f14e693a43a83b81ce8531127eb440
Typical Filename: iizbpyilb.bat
Claimed Product: N/A
Detection Name: Trojan.Agent.DDOH
SHA 256: 8664e2f59077c58ac12e747da09d2810fd5ca611f56c0c900578bf750cab56b7
Typical Filename: aact.exe
Claimed Product: AAct x86
Detection Name: PUA.Win.Tool.Kmsauto::in03.talos
SHA 256: 77c2372364b6dd56bc787fda46e6f4240aaa0353ead1e3071224d454038a545e
Typical Filename: tmp000c3787
Claimed Product: Ultra Virus Killer
Detection Name: PUA.Win.Virus.Ultra::95.sbx.tg