“The Mask,” aka Careto, has been outed. Kaspersky Lab has discovered an advanced Spanish-language speaking threat actor that has been involved in global cyber-espionage operations since at least 2007. The Mask comes with a complex toolset, including highly sophisticated malware, a rootkit, bootkit, Mac OS X and Linux versions and possibly versions for Android and Apple iOS.
Kaspersky cited government institutions, diplomatic offices and embassies, energy, oil and gas companies, research organizations and activists as the primary targets. The firm found victims of the attacks in 31 countries, from the Middle East and Europe to Africa and the Americas.
The attackers' goal is to gather sensitive data from the infected systems, such as office documents, encryption keys, VPN configurations, SSH keys (serving as a means of identifying a user to an SSH server) and RDP files (used by the remote desktop client to automatically open a connection to the reserved computer), the firm said.
A Nation-State Sponsored Campaign?
If Kaspersky’s analysis is correct, an infection can be disastrous for victims. Careto intercepts all communication channels and collects the most vital information from the victim’s machine. One thing is certain, the firm said, detection can be difficult because of stealth rootkit capabilities, built-in functionalities and additional cyber-espionage modules.
“Several reasons make us believe this could be a nation-state-sponsored campaign. First of all, we observed a very high degree of professionalism in the operational procedures of the group behind this attack,” said Costin Raiu, director of the Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT) at Kaspersky Lab.
“From management, shutdown of the operation, avoiding curious eyes through access rules and using wiping instead of deletion of log files. These combine to put this APT ahead of Duqu in terms of sophistication, making it one of the most advanced threats at the moment. This level of operational security is not normal for cyber-criminal groups,” he said.
Security Analysts Disagree
According to Kaspersky Lab’s analysis report, here’s how it works: The Mask campaign relies on spear-phishing e-mails with links to a malicious Web site. The malicious Web site contains an exploit designed to infect the visitor, depending on system configuration. Upon successful infection, the malicious Web site redirects the user to the benign Web site referenced in the e-mail, which can be a YouTube movie or a news portal.
The exploit Web sites do not automatically infect visitors. Rather, the attackers host the exploits at specific folders on the Web site, which are not directly referenced anywhere, except in malicious e-mails, the firm said. Sometimes, the attackers use subdomains on the exploit Web sites, to make them seem more real. These subdomains simulate subsections of the main newspapers in Spain plus some international ones for instance, The Guardian and The Washington Post.
The malware intercepts all the communication channels and collects the most vital information from the infected system. Detection is extremely difficult because of stealth rootkit capabilities, Kaspersky said.
We asked Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos, for his take on Mask. He told us while the malware certainly appears to have a sophistication to it that could indicate a nation-state was involved, he would hardly consider this targeted malware.
“Many of the samples were discovered and detected by antivirus for some time,” he said. “It is hard to believe that anyone serious about spying would run an operation this large and expect it to remain a secret.”