Cyber Space

Line between Nation-State, Criminal Hackers increasingly blurred

The line between the level of sophistication typically exhibited by state-sponsored threat groups and cybercriminals became increasingly blurred in the past year, according to CrowdStrike’s 2018 Global Threat Report.

CrowdStrike has analyzed various aspects of the cybersecurity landscape in the past year, including targeted attacks launched by nation-state actors, the tools and operations of cybercriminals, hacktivism, law enforcement campaigns, and the effectiveness of attacks and defence mechanisms.

According to the security firm, there are several factors that led to the levelling of the playing field, but one of the most significant is the so-called “trickle-down effect”. This product adoption model states that a product initially too expensive for the masses eventually gets cheap enough for the general public to acquire.

Applying this model to the cybersecurity scene, we have the Eternal Blue exploit, which is believed to have been developed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), getting leaked by a group named Shadow Brokers. This has allowed other state-sponsored attackers – including in the WannaCry and NotPetya attacks believed to have been launched by North Korea and Russia – and profit-driven cybercriminals to use the exploit to accomplish their own goals.

On one hand, attacks such as the ones involving NotPetya and WannaCry malware have inspired cybercriminals, giving them ideas on how to maximize profits. On the other hand, state-sponsored actors have also taken inspiration from cybercriminals – both the NotPetya and WannaCry attacks were made to appear as if they were ransomware campaigns launched by profit-driven criminals.

Sophisticated supply chain attacks have been typically used by nation-state groups, but last year saw several incidents that did not appear to be the work of state-sponsored cyberspies.

One incident involved rogue Python libraries being uploaded to the Python Package Index (PyPI). While the libraries included malicious code, it actually turned out to be benign, which has led some experts to believe that it may have been the work of a grey hat hacker.

Other incidents involved a piece of macOS malware called ProtonRAT, which attackers managed to deliver last year on at least two occasions after compromising websites hosting popular video conversion and media player apps. Operation WilySupply analyzed by Microsoft also falls into this category.

The list of supply chain attacks attributed to state-sponsored groups last year included the CCleaner and NetSarang incidents, which some linked to China, and the NotPetya campaign, whose initial infection vector was an updater for a Ukrainian tax accounting application.

“CrowdStrike’s report is just one more in a long line of publications that demonstrates the increasing futility of technical attribution. The largest detriment of this trend of nation-states hiding in the hacking noise is that the security industry can no longer have confidence in its traditional technical attribution models. Relying on code usage and IPs in a world where we know tool kits and techniques are shared, stolen, and sold amongst hackers is a recipe for misattribution,” Ross Rustici, senior director of intelligence services at Cybereason, commented.

“Hackers, especially the higher tier have proven time and again that they are capable and willing to play on cybersecurity’s habit of confirmation bias by using false flags to point the community in the direction of a particular nation-state or criminal group that is either: (1) currently the most talked about group making which plays into the self-interest of the company of finding something that already garners a lot of media and PR attention; or (2) plays to the nationalism of the victim,” Rustici added.

Sanjay Gade

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