Darkhotel espionage campaign targets corporate executives traveling abroad

Kaspersky Lab researched the Darkhotel espionage campaign, which has lurked in the shadows for at least four years while stealing sensitive data from selected corporate executives traveling abroad.

Darkhotel hits its targets while they are staying in luxury hotels. The crew never goes after the same target twice; they operate with surgical precision, obtaining all the valuable data they can from the first contact, deleting traces of their work and fading into the background to await the next high profile target.

The most recent traveling targets include top executives from the USA and Asia doing business and investing in the APAC region: CEOs, senior vice presidents, sales and marketing directors and top R&D staff. This threat actor is still active.

How Darkhotel works

The Darkhotel actor maintains an effective intrusion method set on hotel networks, providing ample access over the years to systems that were believed to be private and secure. They wait until after check-in when the victim connects to the hotel Wi-Fi network, submitting his room number and surname to login.

The attackers see the victim in the compromised network and trick the person into downloading and installing a backdoor that pretends to be an update for legitimate software, such as Google Toolbar, Adobe Flash or Windows Messenger. The unsuspecting executive downloads this hotel “welcome package,” only to infect his machine with a backdoor for the Darkhotel spying software.

Once on a system, the backdoor has been and may be used to further download more advanced stealing tools: a digitally-signed advanced keylogger, the Trojan “Karba’ and an information-stealing module. These tools collect data about the system and the anti-malware software installed on it, steal all keystrokes, and hunt for cached passwords in Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer; login credentials for Gmail Notifier, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo! and Google; and other private information.

Victims lose sensitive information likely to be the intellectual property of the business entities they represent. After the operation, the attackers carefully delete their tools from the hotel network and go back into hiding.

Commenting on Darkhotel, Kurt Baumgartner, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, said, “For the past few years, a strong actor named Darkhotel has performed a number of successful attacks against high-profile individuals, employing methods and techniques that go well beyond typical cybercriminal behavior. This threat actor has operational competence, mathematical and crypto-analytical offensive capabilities, and other resources that are sufficient to abuse trusted commercial networks and target specific victim categories with strategic precision.”

However, the malicious activity of Darkhotel can be inconsistent: it is indiscriminate in its spread of malware alongside its highly targeted attacks.

“The mix of both targeted and indiscriminate attacks is becoming more and more common in the APT scene, where targeted attacks are used to compromise high profile victims, and botnet-style operations are used for mass surveillance or performing other tasks such as DDoSing hostile parties or simply upgrading interesting victims to more sophisticated espionage tools,” added Kurt.

How to outsmart Darkhotel

When traveling, any network, even semi-private ones in hotels, should be viewed as potentially dangerous. The Darkhotel case illustrates an evolving attack vector: individuals who possess valuable information can easily fall victim to Darkhotel itself, as it is still active, or to something similar to a Darkhotel attack.

To prevent this, Kaspersky Lab has the following tips:

Choose a VPN provider – you will get an encrypted communication channel when accessing public or semi-public Wi-Fi.

When traveling, always regard software updates as suspicious. Confirm that the proposed update installer is signed by the appropriate vendor.

Make sure your Internet security solution includes proactive defense against new threats rather than just basic antivirus protection.

The complete report is available here.