Two Italian siblings have been arrested on Monday and stand accused of having spied on Italian politicians, state institutions and law enforcement agencies, businesses and businesspeople, law firms, leaders of Italian masonic lodges, and Vatican officials for years.
45-year-old Giulio Occhionero and 49-year-old Francesca Maria Occhionero, both from Rome but currently residing in London, have allegedly used specially crafted malware (dubbed “EyePyramid”) to compromise the targets’ computers and exfiltrate all kinds of documents, as well as log keystrokes and steal login credentials for sensitive accounts.
According to court documents (in Italian), the investigation began a few months after a security professional employed by ENAV, an Italian company responsible for the provision of air traffic services (ATS) and other air navigation services in Italy, flagged and reported a malicious attachment he received via email.
The spear-phishing email was purportedly sent by an Italian attorney, but the infosec pro became suspicious and sent the attachment to security company Mentat Solutions for analysis. The attachment was found to contain the EyePyramid malware.
After the authorities got involved, the investigation revealed that the email was, indeed, sent from the attorney’s email account, but that it was sent by someone who had compromised the account and accessed it via TOR.
Mentat researchers discovered the malware’s C&C server, and email addresses to which the malware would send some of the stolen information. This allowed them to identify a domain that was registered, along others, by Giulio Occhionero or enterprises tied to him and his syster.
Interestingly enough, Mentat researchers have analyzed the EyePyramid malware even before this investigation, and found inside it a MailBee library, a license for which had been acquired by Giulio Occhionero. The same library could be found in EyePyramid versions from 2010 to late 2015, when Mentat researchers asked the company that issued it to share the identity of the buyer. They apparently did not, but notified him of the request. From then on, the malware used another license.
Italian law enforcement asked the FBI for help to seize the C&C servers (as they were located in the US), to uncover who owned the domain (the information was unavailable online) and the servers, and to get the name of the person who bought the MailBee library license. It was Giulio Occhionero.
All this information allowed them to get permission to tap Giulio’s phone, and confim that he administered the servers in question.
The prosecution alleges that he was developing the malware for many years, and mounted many cyber espionage campaigns. Some of those had been flagged, but the attacker was never identified.
It’s still unknown how the siblings used the stolen information – whether to blackmail the victims or simply to gain an unfair advantage that could ultimately lead to considerable financial profits. The two deny being involved in this cyber espionage scheme.
Among the spied-on individuals are former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, and various Italian senators. Giulio Occhionero is a member of an Italian masonic lodge, and he allegedly also used the malware to spy on his fellow members and members of other masonic lodges in Italy.