Was it Korea? Probably Not…

So, was it North Korea that breached Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE)? The FBI, Whitehouse, and a pile of other people are telling you it is. But if you were to ask me my position on the matter…simple answer, unlikely

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  • This was a coordinated attack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) and utilized a Server Message Block (SMB) Worm Tool to conduct cyber exploitation.
  • This SMB Worm Tool is equipped with a listening implant, lightweight backdoor, proxy tool, destructive hard drive tool, and destructive target cleaning tool.
  • The SMB worm propagates throughout an infected network via brute-force authentication attacks, and connects to a command and control (C2) infrastructure.
  • The malware has the ability to propagate throughout the target network via built-in Windows shares – this is what makes it a worm. 
  • Based on the username/password provided in the configuration file and the hostname/IP address of target systems, the malware will access remote network shares in order to upload a copy of the wiper and begin the wiping process on these remote systems.
  • There are no callback domains associated with this malware since connections are inbound only on a specified port number.
    • 203.131.222.102 / Thailand
    • 217.96.33.164 / Poland
    • 88.53.215.64 / Italy
    • 200.87.126.116 / Bolivia
    • 58.185.154.99 / Singapore
    • 212.31.102.100 / Cypress
    • 208.105.226.235 / United States
According to an FBI press release:
As a result of our investigation, and in close collaboration with other U.S. government departments and agencies, the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions. While the need to protect sensitive sources and methods precludes us from sharing all of this information, our conclusion is based, in part, on the following:
  • Technical analysis of the data deletion malware used in this attack revealed links to other malware that the FBI knows North Korean actors previously developed. For example, there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.
  • The FBI also observed significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea. For example, the FBI discovered that several Internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with known North Korean infrastructure communicated with IP addresses that were hardcoded into the data deletion malware used in this attack.
  • Separately, the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.
Some items of note (provided without any tinfoil hat, partisanship, or prejudice):
  1. The wording is carefully and purposefully used:
    • “the FBI now has enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions.” – note, this does not clarify whether the Republic of North Korea launched, ordered, encouraged, or simply commented on the action. The use of the word “responsible” is purposefully vague.
  2. Correlation forcing causation:
    • “there were similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks.” – bad guys share code and are notoriously lazy. They will use whatever it takes to get the job done. As such, code is borrowed from other attackers, purchased in underground markets, etc.
    • “significant overlap between the infrastructure used in this attack and other malicious cyber activity the U.S. government has previously linked directly to North Korea.” – If you’ve ever seen a movie or television show where ‘hacking’ is depicted, you already know that attackers “hop” from server to server to conduct their nefarious activities. This is as much to hide their tracks as it is to leverage distributed resources.
    • “the tools used in the SPE attack have similarities to a cyber attack in March of last year against South Korean banks and media outlets, which was carried out by North Korea.” – again, similarities in tools and code are not enough to assign attribution.
The FBI, and other agencies, argue that the totality of the data is what makes them positive of the North Korean involvement.
In my opinion, the above components of the “total data” could be a false flag (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_flag) meant to push the investigation towards an uninvolved third-party. This would not be the first instance of false flag hacking attribution.
It is my recommendation that organizations make a conscious decision to refer to the breach simply as “The Sony Breach” and make no association to the Republic of North Korea, “cyberwar”, or “state sponsored attacks” when discussing this, and future breaches that may draw similarities.

The evidence provided thus far, or lack thereof, makes parroting and perpetuating this information irresponsible, at best, and potentially dangerous in extreme circumstances.

References:
Attack components:

SMB Worm Tool: 

This worm uses a brute force authentication attack to propagate via Windows SMB shares. It connects home every five minutes to send log data back to command and control (C2) infrastructure if it has successfully spread to other Windows hosts via SMB port 445. The tool also accepts new scan tasking when it connects to C2. There are two main threads: the first thread calls home and sends back logs (a list of successful SMB exploitations), and the second thread attempts to guess passwords for SMB connections. If the password is correctly guessed, a file share is established and file is copied and run on the newly-infected host.

Listening Implant: 

During installation of this tool, a portion of the binaries is decrypted using AES, with a key derived from the phrase “National Football League.” Additionally, this implant listens for connections on TCP port 195 (for “sensvc.exe” and “msensvc.exe”) and TCP port 444 (for “netcfg.dll”). Each message sent to and from this implant is preceded with its length, then XOR encoded with the byte 0x1F. Upon initial connection, the victim sends the string, “HTTP/1.1 GET /dns?\x00.” The controller then responds with the string “200 www.yahoo.com!\x00″ (for “sensvc.exe” and “msensvc.exe”) or with the string “RESPONSE 200 OK!!” (for “netcfg.dll”). The controller sends the byte “!” (0x21) to end the network connection. This special message is not preceded with a length or XOR encoded.

Lightweight Backdoor: 

This is a backdoor listener that is designed as a service DLL. It includes functionality such as file transfer, system survey, process manipulation, file time matching and proxy capability. The listener can also perform arbitrary code execution and execute commands on the command line. This tool includes functionality to open ports in a victim host’s firewall and take advantage of universal Plug and Play (UPNP) mechanisms to discover routers and gateway devices, and add port mappings, allowing inbound connections to victim hosts on Network Address Translated (NAT) private networks. There are no callback domains associated with this malware since connections are inbound only on a specified port number.
Proxy Tool: Implants in this malware family are typically loaded via a dropper installed as a service, then configured to listen on TCP port 443. The implant may have an associated configuration file which can contain a configurable port. This proxy tool has basic backdoor functionality, including the ability to fingerprint the victim machine, run remote commands, perform directory listings, perform process listings, and transfer files.

Destructive Hard Drive Tool: 

This tool is a tailored hard-drive wiping tool that is intended to destroy data past the point of recovery and to complicate the victim machine’s recovery. If the CNE operator has administrator-level privileges on the host, the program will over-write portions of up-to the first four physical drives attached, and over-write the master boot record (MBR) with a program designed to cause further damage if the hard drive is re-booted. This further results in the victim machine being non-operational with irrecoverable data (There is a caveat for machines installed with the windows 7 operating system: windows 7 machines will continue to operate in a degraded state with the targeted files destroyed until after reboot, in which the infected MBR then wipes the drive.) If the actor has user-level access, the result includes specific files being deleted and practically irrecoverable, but the victim machine would remain usable.

Destructive Target Cleaning Tool: 

This tool renders victim machines inoperable by overwriting the Master Boot Record. The tool is dropped and installed by another executable and consists of three parts: an executable and a dll which contain the destructive components, and an encoded command file that contains the actual destruction commands to be executed.

Network Propagation Wiper: 

The malware has the ability to propagate throughout the target network via built-in Windows shares. Based on the username/password provided in the configuration file and the hostname/IP address of target systems, the malware will access remote network shares in order to upload a copy of the wiper and begin the wiping process on these remote systems. The malware uses several methods to access shares on the remote systems to begin wiping files. Checking for existing shares via “\\hostname\admin$\system32” and “\\hostname\shared$\system32” or create a new share “cmd.exe /q /c net share shared$=%SystemRoot% /GRANT:everyone, FULL”. Once successful, the malware uploads a copy of the wiper file “taskhostXX.exe”, changes the file-time to match that of the built-in file “calc.exe”, and starts the remote process. The remote process is started via the command “cmd.exe /c wmic.exe /node:hostname /user:username /password:pass PROCESS CALL CREATE”. Hostname, username, and password are then obtained from the configuration file. Afterwards, the remote network share is removed via “cmd.exe /q /c net share shared$ /delete”. Once the wiper has been uploaded, the malware reports its status back to one of the four C2 IP addresses.

Written by Andrew Hay


Website:

  • http://danielmiessler.com/ Daniel Miessler

    I’m reminded of a story a while back I read on how people with top secret clearances couldn’t have political discussions with their friends because their friends simply didn’t have the information they did. And they weren’t even allowed to tell them how clueless they were about things.

    I think it’s the same with the FBI and the collective “us”.

    If the FBI comes out and says definitively that based on everything they have seen and know (only a tiny fraction of which they can share) that it was North Korea, then I feel completely unequipped to say that “based on my perspective” I think they’re wrong.

    But hey, we’re both in San Francisco. We should grab coffee and chat about it.

    • Andrew Hay

      I agree 🙂

    • Dave Nullstein

      My problem with our intelligence agencies is that I completely disagree about what data could/should be released without seriously damaging national security. Given their history, I think that outright doubt is mostly deserved. I am not going to take their word for it. It is “taking their word for it” that got us into two recent wars.. and god know what else. WHile I’m sure some would still say “If you only knew what they know…” I suspect that if we knew what they knew we would probably be outraged. (full disclosure… I held a TS SCI clearance for some years)

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Devastatingly handsome CISO @DataGravityInc.

Security, DFIR, DevOps, cloud, business, and BBQ renaissance man of most trades (master of some).