Hackers ramping up attacks against Tibetan activists

Hackers pose as security researchers or companies to trick Tibetan activists into infecting their computers with malware

Hackers are ramping up their attacks against Tibetan activists and are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to deliver malware, according to researchers from security firms FireEye and Trend Micro.

During the last couple of months, there have been reports from several security vendors about targeted attacks that distributed malware designed to steal confidential information from people or organizations supporting the Tibetan cause.

"No organized group receives targeted attacks with a higher volume or more regularity than Tibetan activists," FireEye senior systems engineer Alex Lanstein said in a blog post on Friday. "Not USG, not US DIB, not Taiwan ... Tibet."

"Everyone, from the personal envoys to the Dalai Lama to student activists in San Francisco, gets hammered day in and day out, often times with pretty high octane stuff," Lanstein said.

The social engineering techniques used in these attacks are increasingly sophisticated and the distributed malware is capable of infecting both Windows and Mac OS X computers.

Back in March, security researchers from AlienVault announced that one of its reports about attacks against Tibetan activists was being quoted in new malicious emails that targeted the same people.

The attackers used AlienVault's report to give their rogue emails more legitimacy and convince activists to open the booby-trapped Word documents attached to them.

A similar technique was used recently to trick Tibetan activists into opening malicious PDF email attachments, by quoting a legitimate email message sent by FireEye's Lanstein to people who submitted Tibet-related malware samples to the VirusTotal online antivirus scanning service.

In his original email, Lanstein asked recipients if they are willing to contribute to a blog entry about attacks against Tibetan activists that he planned on writing.

However, a couple of days later, the researcher was notified by several individuals and organizations that rogue emails, which included his original message and a PDF exploit, were being sent out to people from a Yahoo account. There were several hints in the rogue emails that pointed to a Chinese origin, Lanstein said.

"This incident [involving rogue FireEye emails], along with the one that our friends from AlienVault reported about the usage of their blog post with a HTML copy of their site for these campaigns, shows that the attackers behind these targeted campaigns are becoming more creative to further their agenda," said Ivan Macalintal, threat research manager at Trend Micro, in a blog post on Friday.

Trend Micro's researchers have been keeping track of recent Tibet-related attack campaigns and issued two reports during the past several days about the techniques they've seen being used by the people behind them.

In one campaign, rogue emails sent to Tibetan activists contained a malicious RTF (Rich Text Format) file that exploited an older Microsoft Office vulnerability to install a backdoor, which was itself infected with a virus. The Trend Micro researchers call this hybridized malware.

"In this scenario, attackers are able to maximize system compromise by deploying two different payloads in one execution, leaving a user's machine open to a slew of infection," Trend Micro threat response engineer Roland Dela Paz, said in a blog post on Saturday.

A new attack campaign that targets Tibetan activists distributes malicious RTF files that exploit a Microsoft Office vulnerability patched just one week ago, on April 10, Macalintal said in a blog post on Monday.

On Friday, researchers from antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab reported the discovery of a new Mac OS X backdoor which they named SabPub. On Sunday, they said that the backdoor might have been distributed as part of attacks that targeted Tibetan activists.

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Lucian Constantin

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