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Study of the APT attacks on state institutions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

July 20, 2020


As an object of study, targeted cyberattacks on large enterprises and government institutions are of great interest to information security specialists. The study of such incidents makes it possible to analyze the strategy and tools used by hackers to break into computer systems, and in turn develop appropriate counteraction measures. The software used in targeted attacks is usually unique since it is developed in-line with the goals and objectives of the attackers, and is not publicly advertised. In comparison with common threats, samples of such malware rarely become the object of research. In addition, targeted attacks use complex mechanisms to hide traces of malicious activity, making it more difficult to detect unauthorized presence inside the attacked organization’s infrastructure.

In March 2019, Doctor Web was contacted by a client from a state institution of the Republic of Kazakhstan regarding malware presence on one of the corporate network computers. This case prompted the beginning of an investigation, resulting in the company's specialists discovering and being the first to describe the family of trojan programs used for a full-scale targeted attack on the institution. The materials we had made it possible to learn more about the tools and goals of cybercriminals who infiltrated the internal computer network. The investigation revealed that the facility’s computer network has been compromised since at least December 2017.

In addition, in February 2020 Doctor Web was contacted by representatives of the state institution of the Kyrgyz Republic regarding a similar matter — signs of an infected corporate network. Our expertise has confirmed the range of malicious programs operating within the network. Some modifications of this malware were also used during the attack on the organization in Kazakhstan. Our analysis showed, as in the previous case, the initial infection began long before the enquiry — in March 2017.

Because the unauthorized presence in both infrastructures continued for at least three years, as well as the event logs from servers revealing completely different trojan families, we assume that not one, but several hacker groups are likely behind these attacks. With that, some of the trojans used in these attacks are well-known: part of them are exclusive tools of certain APT groups, while the other part is used by various APT groups of China.

General information about the attack and tools

We were able to study in detail the information from several network servers of the effected institutions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All devices covered in the study run Microsoft Windows operating systems.

Malware used in the targeted attack can be divided into two categories:

  • Common ones that were installed on most computers in the network;
  • Specialized ones installed on servers of special interest to the attacker.

The analyzed malware samples and utilities used by attackers allow us to assume the following attack scenario. After successfully exploiting the vulnerabilities and gaining access to the network computer, hackers uploaded one of the BackDoor.PlugX modifications to it. The trojan's payload modules allowed attackers to remotely control an infected computer and use it for lateral movement. Another trojan, presumably used for initial infection, was BackDoor.Whitebird.1. This backdoor was designed to operate in 64-bit operating systems and had a universal functionality: supporting an encrypted connection to the C&C server, as well as the file manager, proxy, and for remote control via the command shell functionality.

After achieving a network presence, attackers used specialized malware to carry out their tasks. This is how specialized trojan programs are distributed among infected devices.

Domain controller #1:
Domain controller #2:
Domain controller #3:
Server #1:
Server #2:

The most interesting finding is the XPath family, whose modifications, according to our information, have not been publicly described before. The family has a rootkit for hiding network activity and traces of presence in a compromised system, which was detected by the Dr.Web anti-rootkit installed on the attacked server. The samples we studied were compiled between 2017-2018. With that, these malicious programs are based on open source projects released several years earlier. Thus, the studied samples used versions of the WinDivert package released between 2013-2015. This indirectly indicates the first XPath modifications may also have been developed during this period.

XPath is a module trojan, each component of which corresponds to a specific stage of malware operation. The infection process begins with the installer operation, detected as Trojan.XPath.1. The installer uses an encrypted configuration hardcoded in its body and launches the payload either by driver installation or by utilizing COM Hijacking. The program uses the system registry to store its modules, using both encryption and data compression.

Trojan.XPath.2 is a driver and hides malicious activity in a compromised system by running another module simultaneously. The driver has Chinese digital signatures. Its operation is based on open source projects. Unlike other components stored in the system registry, the driver files are located on a disk, and the malicious program runs covertly. In addition to hiding the driver file on the disk, the component is also designed for injecting the payload’s loader in the lsass.exe process, as well as concealing the trojan's network activity. The operating scenario varies depending on the operating system version.

PayloadDll.c is the original name for the third component. A library detected as Trojan.XPath.3 is an intermediate module that injects the payload, saved in the system registry, into the svhost.exe process by utilizing COM Hijacking.

The main functionality is contained in the payload module detected as Trojan.XPath.4. The component is written in C++, and is also based on open source projects. Similar to most of the malware analyzed in this study, this trojan is designed to gain unauthorized access to infected computers and steal confidential data. Its key feature is the ability to operate in two modes. The first is the Client Mode. In this mode, the trojan connects to the C&C server and waits for incoming commands. The second is the Agent Mode. In this mode, Trojan.XPath.4 carries server functions: it listens for certain ports, waits for other clients to connect to them, and sends commands to these clients. Thus, the malware creators have provided the possibility for deploying a local C&C server inside the attacked network to redirect commands from an external C&C server to infected computers inside the network.

For a detailed description of the XPath family and how it works, see PDF-version of the study or Dr.Web Virus Library.

Another interesting finding is the Trojan.Mirage access implementation to the command shell. To perform command shell I/O redirections, the malware used files that we were able to retrieve from an infected server during the investigation. With them we managed to see the commands executed by cybercriminals using the following trojan function, as well as the data received in response:

reg add HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\Wdigest /v UseLogonCredential /t REG_DWORD /d 1 /f
ipconfig /displaydns
c:\windows\debug\windbg.exe -n -o 53,80,443
c:\windows\debug\windbg.exe -n -o 143,110
reg query HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\Wdigest

The launched windbg.exe file was a TCP/UPD port scanner utility called PortQry.

During our investigation, we found evidence indirectly confirming the connection of targeted attacks on institutions of Central Asian republics. One of the uncovered samples called BackDoor.PlugX.38 used the nicodonald[.]accesscam[.]org domain, which was also used as the C&C server for BackDoor.Apper.14, also known as ICEFOG NG. A few years ago, we discovered a backdoor of this family in a phishing email sent to one of the state institutions in Kazakhstan. Also, an RTF document that installs this sample of BackDoor.Apper.14 was first uploaded to VirusTotal from Kazakhstan on March 19, 2019.

An interesting finding within the framework of the Kyrgyzstan incident is the Logtu backdoor found on an infected server along with the Mikroceen backdoor. In addition to a similar set of malware used by attackers in both incidents, Mikroceen points to a possible connection between the two attacks: a sample of this highly specialized backdoor was found on both networks and in both cases it was installed on the domain controller.

During the search for samples related to these attacks, we found a specially made backdoor that implements BIND Shell access to the command shell. The program’s debugging information contains the project name in Chinese, 正向马源码, which may indicate the trojan’s origin.

In addition to malicious programs, attackers used the following publicly available utilities for lateral movement within the network:

  • Mimikatz
  • TCP Port Scanner V1.2 By WinEggDrop
  • Nbtscan
  • PsExec
  • wmiexec.vbs
  • goMS17-010
  • ZXPortMap v1.0 By LZX
  • Earthworm
  • PortQry version 2.0 GOLD

Examples of launching some of the listed utilities are shown below.

  • ZXPortMap: vmwared.exe 21 53
  • Earthworm: cryptsocket.exe -s rssocks -d -e 53

The APT group also actively used its own PowerShell scripts to perform various tasks, such as collecting information about an infected computer and other network devices, checking the C&C server status from an infected computer, etc. In addition, we found a PowerShell script designed for downloading all the contents from the Microsoft Exchange Server mailboxes of several of the organization’s employees.

Examples of certain PowerShell scripts executed on infected servers:

%COMSPEC% /Q /c tasklist /v >>c:\programdata\2.txt
%COMSPEC% /Q /c systeminfo >>c:\programdata\2.txt
%COMSPEC% /Q /c netstat -nvb    >> c:\programdata\2.txt
powershell -exec bypass -command "& {  foreach($i in 53,80,443){ echo ((new-object Net.Sockets.TcpClient).Connect('',$i))  "port:"$i } 2 > $null  }" >>c:\programdata\2.txt


During the investigation, our specialists discovered several families of trojan programs used in these attacks. Samples and malicious activity analysis showed that the initial infection occurred long before the organization’s employees detected the first signs of malware presence. Unfortunately, this scenario is one of the attributes of successful APT attacks, as malware creators always allocate significant resources to concealing their presence within the compromised system.

The study does not address the primary vector of infection, or the overall picture of infection of the entire infrastructure. We are convinced the trojans described in the study are only part of the malware involved in these attacks. The mechanisms used by hackers make it very difficult not only to detect unauthorized presence, but also to regain control over network objects.

To minimize risks, it is necessary to constantly monitor internal network resources, especially servers that are of high interest to the attackers such as domain controllers, mail servers, and Internet gateways. If the system is compromised, a prompt and appropriate analysis of the situation is necessary to develop adequate counteraction measures. Doctor Web not only creates anti-virus protection software, but also provides an investigation service for virus-related computer incidents, which include targeted attacks. If malicious activity within a corporate network is suspected, the best option is to contact the Doctor Web virus laboratory for qualified help. An early response will help minimize damage and prevent the worst consequences of targeted computer attacks.

Indicators of compromise.

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