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Iranian State-Sponsored APT 34 Launches Spy Campaign with Just-Patched Microsoft Vulns

An espionage campaign being carried out in the Middle East uses a vulnerability that was patched less than a week ago.

FireEye observed the attackers targeting a government organization in the Middle East, discovering that the activity was carried out by a suspected Iranian cyber-espionage threat group, APT34. It is using a custom backdoor to achieve its objectives.

“We believe APT34 is involved in a long-term cyber-espionage operation largely focused on reconnaissance efforts to benefit Iranian nation-state interests, and has been operational since at least 2014,” FireEye said in an analysis. “This threat group has conducted broad targeting across a variety of industries, including financial, government, energy, chemical, and telecommunications, and has largely focused its operations within the Middle East. We assess that APT34 works on behalf of the Iranian government based on infrastructure details that contain references to Iran, use of Iranian infrastructure, and targeting that aligns with nation-state interests.”

APT34 uses a mix of public and non-public tools, often conducting spear phishing operations using compromised accounts, sometimes coupled with social engineering tactics.

“In May 2016, we published a blog detailing a spear phishing campaign targeting banks in the Middle East region that used macro-enabled attachments to distribute POWBAT malware. We now attribute that campaign to APT34. In July 2017, we observed APT34 targeting a Middle East organization using a PowerShell-based backdoor that we call POWRUNER and a downloader with domain generation algorithm functionality that we call BONDUPDATER, based on strings within the malware.”

In this latest campaign, APT34 leveraged the recent Microsoft Office vulnerability CVE-2017-11882, which affects several versions of Microsoft Office and, when exploited, allows a remote user to run arbitrary code in the context of the current user as a result of improperly handling objects in memory. It was patched by Microsoft on Nov. 14.

“The vulnerability exists in the old Equation Editor (EQNEDT32.EXE), a component of Microsoft Office that is used to insert and evaluate mathematical formulas,” FireEye explained. “The Equation Editor is embedded in Office documents using object linking and embedding (OLE) technology. It is created as a separate process instead of child process of Office applications. If a crafted formula is passed to the Equation Editor, it does not check the data length properly while copying the data, which results in stack memory corruption. As the EQNEDT32.exe is compiled using an older compiler and does not support address space layout randomization (ASLR), a technique that guards against the exploitation of memory corruption vulnerabilities, the attacker can easily alter the flow of program execution.”

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