Arabic cyber espionage group attacking high profile victims

Kaspersky Lab discovered Desert Falcons, a cyber-espionage group targeting high profile organizations and individuals from Middle Eastern countries.

The list of targeted victims include Military and Government organizations – particularly employees responsible for countering money laundering as well as health and the economy; leading media outlets; research and education institutions; energy and utilities providers; activists and political leaders; physical security companies; and other targets in possession of important geopolitical information.

In total Kaspersky Lab experts were able to find signs of more than 3,000 victims in 50+ countries, with more than one million files stolen. Although the main focus of Desert Falcons’ activity appears to be in countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Jordan, multiple victims were also found in Qatar, KSA, UAE, Algeria, Lebanon, Norway, Turkey, Sweden, France, the United States, Russia and other countries.

The main method used by the Falcons to deliver the malicious payload is spear phishing via e-mails, social networking posts and chat messages. Phishing messages contained malicious files (or a link to malicious files) masquerading as legitimate documents or applications. Desert Falcons use several techniques to entice victims into running the malicious files. One of the most specific techniques is the so-called right-to-left extension override trick.

This method takes advantage of a special character in Unicode to reverse the order of characters in a file name, hiding the dangerous file extension in the middle of the file name and placing a harmless-looking fake file extension near the end of the file name. Using this technique, malicious files (.exe, .scr) will look like a harmless document or pdf file; and even careful users with good technical knowledge could be tricked into running these files. For example, a file ending with .fdp.scr would appear .rcs.pdf.

After the successful infection of a victim, Desert Falcons would use one of two different Backdoors: the main Desert Falcons’ Trojan or the DHS Backdoor, which both appear to have been developed from scratch and are in continuous development. A total of more than 100 malware samples used by the group in their attacks have been identified.

The malicious tools used have full Backdoor functionality, including the ability to take screenshots, log keystrokes, upload/download files, collect information about all Word and Excel files on a victim’s Hard Disk or connected USB devices, steal passwords stored in the system registry (Internet Explorer and live Messenger) and make audio recordings. Kaspersky Lab experts were also able to find traces of activity of a malware which appears to be an Android backdoor capable of stealing mobile calls and SMS logs.

Using these tools the Desert Falcons launched and managed at least three different malicious campaigns targeting different set of victims in different countries.

Kaspersky Lab researchers estimate that at least 30 people, in three teams, spread across different countries, are operating the Desert Falcons malware campaigns.

“The individuals behind this threat actor are highly determined, active and with good technical, political and cultural insight. Using only phishing emails, social engineering and homemade tools and backdoors, the Desert Falcons were able to infect hundreds of sensitive and important victims in the Middle East region through their computer systems or mobile devices, and exfiltrate sensitive data. We expect this operation to carry on developing more Trojans and using more advanced techniques. With enough funding, they might be able to acquire or develop exploits that would increase the efficiency of their attacks,” said Dmitry Bestuzhev, security expert at Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team.




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