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Lazarus Cybercrime Group Moves to Mobile Platform

By
McAfee's Christiaan Beek and Raj Samani

November 20, 2017

When it comes to describing cyberattacks, the word sophisticated is used a lot. Whether to explain yet another “advanced” campaign by a threat actor group hoping to steal information or disrupt computer systems, it seems the precursor to any analysis is to call it sophisticated. Yet the modus operandi for many of these groups is to begin an attack with a simple email, which for some time has been one of the most effective malware delivery mechanisms.

The McAfee Mobile Research team has identified a new threat—Android malware that poses as a legitimate app available from Google Play and targets South Korean users—that suggests a deviation from the traditional playbook. An analysis of campaign code, infrastructure, and tactics and procedures suggests the Lazarus group is responsible, as they evolve their attack tactics to now operate within the mobile platform. And although the debate regarding attribution of attacks will always rage, documenting evolving tactics by threat actor groups allows organizations and consumers to adapt their defenses accordingly.

Based on what we know, the app first appeared in the wild in March 2017. The distribution is very low and is aimed at a Korean Audience (based on telemetry hits).

Although we cannot be certain, persons associated with GodPeople, an organization based in Seoul with a history of supporting religious groups in North Korea and the developers of the original application, could be the intended targets. GodPeople is sympathetic to individuals from North Korea, helping to produce a movie about underground church groups in the North. Previous dealings with the Korean Information Security Agency on discoveries in the Korean peninsula have shown that religious groups are often the target of such activities in Korea.

Evolving Attack Tactics

Leveraging email as the entry vector allows attackers to be very specific about whom they wish to target, often described as the spear phishing. Developing a malicious application does not provide the same level of granularity. However, in this instance the attackers developed malware that poses as a legitimate APK, advertising itself as means for reading the Bible in Korean. Leveraging the mobile platform as the attack vector is potentially significant—particularly as South Korea has a significant mobile population that is “in a race to be first with 5G,” according to a Forbes article. Typically when a mobile platform is mentioned, we think about our mobile phones. However, in this case, we know South Korea has an increasing use of tablets, replacing traditional laptops. How well secured are tablets and how are they monitored?

Evolving attacks onto the mobile platform are likely to continue, and this appears to be the first example of the Lazarus group using mobile. Such a change, therefore, is significant, demonstrating that criminals are keeping up with platform popularity. Indeed, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the global number of mobile subscriptions worldwide now exceeds the global population, which suggests that such a tactic is only likely to increase as our dependency on mobile platforms grows.

Source: International Telecommunication Union.

Keeping Safe

Understanding the evolving tactics by nefarious actors is imperative. It is critical that we adopt simple security measures to counter these new tactics. This malware is detected as “Android/Backdoor” by McAfee Mobile Security. Always keep your mobile security application updated to the latest version. And never install applications from unverified sources.

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