Cyber Security

New era of cyber crime | the BlackBerry Research Report: CostaRicto

12th November 2020
Lanna Cooper

During the past six months, the BlackBerry Research and Intelligence team have been monitoring a cyber-espionage campaign that is targeting disparate victims around the globe. The campaign, dubbed CostaRicto by BlackBerry, appears to be operated by 'hackers-for-hire', a group of APT mercenaries who possess bespoke malware tooling and complex VPN proxy and SSH tunnelling capabilities.

Mercenary groups offering APT-style attacks are becoming more and more popular. Their Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) often resemble highly sophisticated state-sponsored campaigns, but the profiles and geography of their victims are far too diverse to be aligned with a single bad actor’s interests.

Although in theory the customers of a mercenary APT might include anyone who can afford it, the more sophisticated actors will naturally choose to work with patrons of the highest profile - be it large organisations, influential individuals, or even governments. Having a lot at stake, the cyber criminals must choose very carefully when selecting their commissions to avoid the risk of being exposed.

Outsourcing an espionage campaign, or part of it, to a mercenary group might be very compelling, especially to businesses and individuals who seek intelligence on their competition yet may not have the required tooling, infrastructure and experience to conduct an attack themselves. But even notorious adversaries experienced in cyber-espionage can benefit from adding a layer of indirection to their attacks. By using a mercenary as their proxy, the real attacker can better protect their identity and thwart attempts at attribution.

Key findings:

  • CostaRicto targets are scattered across different countries in Europe, Americas, Asia, Australia and Africa, but the biggest concentration appears to be in South Asia (especially India, Bangladesh and Singapore), suggesting that the threat actor could be based in that region, but working on a wide range of commissions from diverse clients.
  • The command-and-control (C2) servers are managed via Tor and/or through a layer of proxies; a complex network of SSH tunnels are also established in the victim’s environment. These practices reveal better-than-average operation security.
  • The backdoor used as a foothold is a new strain of never-before-seen malware - a custom-built tool with a suggestive project name, well-structured code, and detailed versioning system. The earliest timestamps are from October 2019, and based on the version numbers, the project appears to be in the debug testing phase. It’s not clear as of now if it’s something that the threat actors developed in-house or obtained for exclusive use as part of beta testing from another entity.
  • The timestamps of payload stagers go back to 2017, which might suggest the operation itself has been going on for a while, but used to deliver a different payload. It’s not impossible, though, that the stagers are simply being reused without recompilation (i.e.: by changing the C2 URLs via binary editing).
  • The backdoor project is called Sombra, which is a reference to an Overwatch game persona - an agent of the antagonist organisation, who specialises in espionage and intelligence assessment and is characterised by stealth, infiltration and hacking skills.
  • Some of the domain names hardcoded in the backdoor binaries seem to spoof legitimate domains (e.g.: the malicious domain sbibd[.]net spoofing a legitimate domain of the State Bank of India Bangladesh, However, victims affected by these backdoors are unrelated, suggesting reuse of existing infrastructure which served another purpose.
  • One of the IP addresses which the backdoor domains were registered to overlaps with an earlier phishing campaign attributed to APT28 (i.e.: according to RiskIQ data, the SombRAT domain akams[.]in was at the time of attack registered to the same IP address as the phishing domain mail.kub-gas[.]com). However, BlackBerry researchers believe that a direct link between CostaRicto and APT28 is highly unlikely. It might be that the IP overlap is coincidental, or – just as plausible – that the earlier phishing campaigns have been outsourced to the mercenary on behalf of the actual threat actor.

To read more of the report, click here.

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