New Insights into Energetic Bear’s Watering Hole Attacks on Turkish Critical Infrastructure
By Yonathan Klijnsma, RiskIQ
November 3, 2017
On October 20th US-CERT published an alert (TA-17-293A) with information about the activities of an APT targeting the critical infrastructure sector. The report contains an extensive set of indicators with detailed context and information around them. Part of the Russian sphere of influence, the threat group discussed in the US-CERT report is the perpetrator of documented cyber espionage attacks around the world, many of which target industrial and manufacturing firms and critical infrastructure. Known by many names, the group is most prominently known as ‘Energetic Bear’ and ‘Crouching Yeti.’
Detailed analysis of Energetic Bear’s malware and activities was recently done by Kaspersky, and RiskIQ initially investigated them earlier this year. Through our web crawling network, we were able to determine that a website belonging to a Turkish energy company was being used in a watering hole attack targeting people associated with Turkish critical infrastructure. Compromised via a supply chain attack, the site was injected with SMB credential-harvesting malware. RiskIQ then linked the malicious infrastructure to a string of related Turkish sites that were compromised for the same purpose and traced the attack back to a likely timeframe in which it began.
Watering hole attacks, especially those involving supply chain compromises, have been an extremely effective method for operators of cyber espionage campaigns because they target victims of specific groups, organizations, and regions, and with close but tumultuous relations between Turkey and the Russian Federation, Turkey is not a surprising target for Energetic Bear. We shared our findings with law enforcement and national CERT partners, but now that the indicators have become public per US-CERT’s publication, we want to give our unique point of view on the threat.
Strategical Compromise for Reconnaissance
Part of Energetic Bear’s campaign involved strategical web compromises that give them exposure to specific targets. For example, prior activities from the group include compromising software suppliers for programmable logic controller (PLC) components used in critical infrastructure and backdooring them with the Havex malware. In the case of the campaign described in the US-CERT report, the group compromised the website of Turcas Petrol, a Turkish energy company, located at turcas.com.tr.
However, the iframe’d page for the ‘Announcements’ subsection was modified by Energetic Bear operators to contain a small addition in the form of an image inclusion:
The image URL redirects to a link using the file:// scheme, which forces the connection through the file protocol, which then allows the group to harvest Microsoft SMB credentials. This behavior was also noted by Talos, which wrote a detailed analysis of the spear-phishing emails belonging to the same campaign as this watering hole attack. It’s interesting to note that the back-end server used in the attack seems to be written using the TornadoServer Python framework used for building web and networking applications:
In the case of Turcas Petrol, below is the entire chain of events we observed during the crawl:
In and of itself, this compromise seems
targeted at Turcas Petrol and those with a close relationship with
the business, a tactic that mirrors other Energetic Bear campaigns.
Essentially, the group’s goal is to influence areas of interest to
the Russian Federation. What we’d like to show, which seems to be
missing from the US-CERT report, is the entire chain of events for
Strategical Compromise for Broad Targeting
The previous example of the Turcas Petrol website compromise showed specific targeting. While company-specific websites were compromised in this campaign, ‘general purpose’ websites were also amongst the victims. One such site is plantengineering.com which serves as an information and news hub for the critical infrastructure sector.
For a few months in early 2017, this website had one of its resources compromised, likely meaning that Energetic Bear operators had broad access to the server. On the main page of the website, a resource loads from /typo3conf/ext/t3s_jslidernews/res/js/jquery.easing.js as seen in our crawl:
When we go through more of our data for this very simplified direct image inclusion, we find a pattern in the URLs and websites. Here are three of our hits:
All three URLs are the same, as is the injected content. All the affected websites are news and information websites for the industrial sector, which indicates a definite pattern. So, who owns these websites? Looking at the WHOIS information in PassiveTotal we find plantengineering.com is owned by CFE Media LLC:
Reading a bit further, we find the email address email@example.com was used to register the domain. Pivoting off this address we can see the same pattern that we saw with the URLs:
From our data, RiskIQ found that controleng.com, plantengineering.com, and csemag.com were all affected by the injection from Energetic Bear. Because they’re geared toward engineers working in the critical infrastructure sector and thus prime targets for this watering hole attack, the odds are that CFE Media’s other websites were affected. In fact, CFE Media has at least six confirmed brands that publish news and information:
Because we started seeing Energetic Bear’s SMB-harvesting injection at the end of March and our crawl data from the end of January was still clean, RiskIQ has been able to pinpoint the start of the campaign to between the beginning of February and the end March.
Conclusion: Don’t Feed the Bear
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To track the full list of IOCs related to this campaign, visit the RiskIQ Community Public Project.