The CyberWire Daily Podcast 11.24.21
Ep 1466 | 11.24.21

Phishing in the Iranian diaspora. Not your grandma and grandpa’s crytper. Malware-as-a-service. Proofs-of-concept (one is a zero-day). Apple sues NSO Group.


Tre Hester: An apparent cyberespionage campaign targets the Iranian diaspora. Babadeda is an emerging crypter seeing use against alt-coin and NFT speculators. RATDispenser is out in the wild, a malware-as-a-service operation. Proofs of concept published for Microsoft exploits. Apple sues NSO Group. Group-IB's founder asks President Putin for clemency. Caleb Barlow on the difference between working for a company that is funded by VCs, PEs, angels or is public. Our guest today is Karl Sigler from Trustwave on the results of the 2021 Trustwave SpiderLabs Telemetry Report. And there's a guilty plea in the Wolf of Sofia case.

Tre Hester: From the CyberWire studios at DataTribe, I'm Tre Hester with your CyberWire summary for Wednesday, November 24, 2021. 

Tre Hester: Researchers at security firm SafeBreach this morning issued a report on what they characterize as an Iranian threat actor using a Microsoft MSHTML remote-code execution exploit with a new PowerShell stealer. It appears to be a cyberespionage campaign against Farsi-speaking targets. The campaign appears to have begun in mid-September. The geography of the attacks suggests that the targets are either members of the Iranian diaspora or Farsi-speaking foreign specialists in Iranian affairs. 

Tre Hester: The malware is spread in phishing attacks, whose lures include clickbait denouncing the Islamic republic and its leaders. As SafeBreach puts it, quote, "almost half of the victims are located in the United States. Based on the Microsoft Word document content, which blames Iran's leader for the corona massacre, and the nature of the collected data, we assume that the victims might be Iranians who live abroad and might be seen as a threat to Iran's Islamic regime. The adversary might be tied to Iran's Islamic regime since the Telegram surveillance usage is typical of Iran's threat actors in Infy, Ferocious Cat and Rampant Kitten. Surprisingly, the usage of exploits for the infection is quite unique to Iranian threat actors, which, in most cases, rely heavily on social engineering tricks," end quote. 

Tre Hester: The U.S. isn't the only country where Farsi speakers are being prospected, but it does account for a bit more than 45% of the infestations SafeBreach's heat map displays. The Netherlands comes in second, followed by Russia, Germany and Canada neck and neck and neck for third place. China, Korea, the United Kingdom and India are all roughly tied for fourth. 

Tre Hester: Security firm Morphisec late yesterday published a study of an emerging crypter, Babadeda, which criminals are using to mount and obfuscate malware attacks against cryptocurrency traders and NFT speculators. Quote, "targeting cryptocurrency users through trusted attack vectors gives its distributors a fast-growing selection of potential victims. Once a victim's machine, masquerading as a known application with a complex obfuscation, also means that anyone relying on signature-based malware effectively has no way of knowing Babadeda is on their machine or of stopping it from executing," end quote. 

Tre Hester: Babadeda has been found operating in the popular Discord community, a good place to be if you're trolling for alt-coin and NFT enthusiasts. The crypter is probably being used by a Russophone gang. Its name, which derives from a placeholder used in its code, is Russian for Granny-Gramps, but there's nothing homey or domesticated about it. This isn't your pop-pop's mom and pop. 

Tre Hester: Threat researchers at HP describe an evasive JavaScript loader they're calling RATDispenser. The name reveals the function. RATDispenser distributes remote access trojans and associated information stealers to its targets. It's an initial access tool, and HP thinks it's probably being operated in a malware-as-a-service play. RATDispenser has been observed delivering eight malware families, including STRAAT, WSHRAT, AdWind, Remcos, Formbook, Panda Stealer, Ratty and GuLoader. Quote, "the most interesting among them is Panda Stealer," HP says, adding, "first seen in April 2021, this is a new malware family that targets cryptocurrency wallets. The Panda Stealer sample we analyzed were all fileless variants that download additional payloads from a tech storage site, The least common families where a GuLoader and Ratty. GuLoader is a downloader known for downloading and running various RATs, while Ratty is an open-source RAT written in Java," end quote. 

Tre Hester: In November's Patch Tuesday, Microsoft addressed a high-severity remote-code-execution issue in on-premises Exchange Server 2016 and 2019. Users are advised to patch. The flaw is being exploited in the wild, and a proof-of-concept exploit has been published, Computing and others report. 

Tre Hester: BleepingComputer reports that a working proof-of-concept that bypasses Microsoft's November patch of Windows Installer Elevation of Privilege vulnerability, CVE-2021-41379, has been developed. The zero-day opens systems up to privilege-escalation attacks. The researcher, who posted the proof-of-concept to GitHub as opposed to quietly disclosing it to Microsoft, says he did so out of frustration over reductions in bug bounties. A quick note of disclosure - Microsoft is a CyberWire sponsor. 

Tre Hester: Apple has filed a lawsuit against NSO Group. The complaint includes details about the FORCEDENTRY exploit, which took advantage of a since-patched vulnerability to install Pegasus intercept tools in iPhones. Apple calls NSO Group a state-sponsored group and quotes the evident approval Citizen Lab's characterization of the Israeli firm as one of the number of mercenary spyware firms. The text of the lawsuit itself is even harsher, calling NSO Group, quote, "amoral 21st century mercenaries who have created highly sophisticated cyber surveillance machinery that invites routine and flagrant abuse," end quote. 

Tre Hester: In addition to seeking unspecified damages, Apple has asked the Federal Court for the Northern District of California to grant a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple software, services or devices. The New York Times observes that this is the second major lawsuit a corporation has brought against NSO Group alleging damages for abuse of its Pegasus tool. Facebook sued the Intercept vendor in 2019 for targeting WhatsApp users. 

Tre Hester: Reuters quotes NSO Group's response to Apple's announcement. Quote, "pedophiles and terrorists can freely operate in technological safe havens, and we provide governments the lawful tools to fight it. NSO Group will continue to advocate for the truth," end quote. 

Tre Hester: The U.S. Congress has heard over the past year - and listened sympathetically - about how encryption can cloak child abuse. And that sentiment is far from confined to the U.S. It doesn't even appear to operate most strongly in America. Meta, the newly named parent of Facebook and Instagram, has announced that it will delay its plans to bring end-to-end encryption to two of its flagship platforms until 2023 at least, the Telegraph reported earlier this week. In that case, the delay is prompted, according to the Guardian, by concerns over child safety. The fear, particularly in evidence among British officials and child protection advocates, is that end-to-end encryption will place children at risk by cloaking their abusers. 

Tre Hester: Apple also announced its support for organizations researching abusive cyber surveillance. Both Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech are mentioned in dispatches. It's offering $10 million to support such work, as well as some in-kind contributions. Quote, "Apple will also support the accomplished researchers at the Citizen Lab with pro-bono technical, threat intelligence and engineering assistance to aid their independent research mission and, where appropriate, will offer the same assistance to other organizations doing critical work in this space," end quote. 

Tre Hester: Ilya Sachkov, founder and head of security firm Group-IB, which operates out of Singapore and Moscow, was jailed in September on charges of treason for allegedly releasing Russian state secrets. His pre-trial detention has been extended through February. And Reuters reports that Sachkov, whose maintained his innocence, has appealed to President Putin for release to home confinement at least, comparing himself to a latter-day Dreyfus, a loyal man being persecuted on trumped-up charges. No response so far from President Putin. 

Tre Hester: And finally, Bloomberg reports that an Israeli man who's identified only as Tal-Jacki Z.F. and has his face blurred out in news photos copped a guilty plea in Munich court to charges that he served as an accomplice to the Wolf of Sophia, bubbling investors in Germany and Austria out of lots of cash by running investment scams through call centers located in various Balkan locations. Mr. Z.F. says he's sorry, and that it was really the booze and the blow that sort of made him do it. Bloomberg writes Tal-Jacki Z.F. consumed two to three liters of whiskey and two or three grams of cocaine every day, occasionally also heroin. His lawyer, Sarah Stolle, told the court the drug abuse was a way to cope with the high pressure and also because of the qualms he had about what he was doing to investors, she said. He's seeking to get into rehab and hopes to be transferred to Israel, where his former wife lives with their children. If she takes him back, well, that's one forgiving ex. 

Dave Bittner: The team at Trustwave recently released their 2021 Trustwave SpiderLabs Telemetry Report, tracking the state of high-severity vulnerabilities. It's a mixed bag overall. Organizations understand the need to patch their systems and in many cases are doing so. But overall, it's hard to say they're doing so in a timely manner. Karl Sigler is manager of the SpiderLabs threat intelligence team at Trustwave. 

Karl Sigler: You know, we've seen a massive trend in vulnerabilities being discovered anyway. In 2020, we saw a little bit over 18,000 vulnerabilities reported and catalogued by the National Vulnerability Database from NIST. This year, 2021, we're on track to surpass that. So year after year, we're seeing more and more vulnerabilities exposed, released, documented. What we aren't seeing is any improvement in administrators actually getting those patches in place. 

Dave Bittner: And why do we suppose that is? I mean, do we have empathy for the folks who are out there trying to get this done every day? Or do they - what would they say if we asked them? 

Karl Sigler: (Laughter) I think we should have empathy for the poor administrators out there. While we are seeing that administrators aren't putting patches on as quickly as we would like, the reasons for that are really diverse. You know, I think there's this mythology that administrators are understaffed, they are over their heads with too many things to do, things fall through the cracks, perhaps it's just lack of experience or laziness. I don't think that's necessarily true. I think there are a lot of reasons why we're not seeing patches applied, and not all of that has to do with inexperienced administrators or just lazy administrators. There are some very good reasons why patches aren't being applied in a very timely fashion. 

Dave Bittner: And what do you suppose some of those are? 

Karl Sigler: So I think complexity plays a huge part of this. When you have such complex software that interacts, clusters of servers rather than just one single server - a lot of these organizations are globally disparate. So you have systems that may be spread out across multiple geographies, multiple time zones, administrators with different languages. Once you have that level of complexity, especially for these larger organizations, that complexity cascades right down to patching. And it makes the patching process a very difficult one to navigate. And I think that a lot of administrators that work for those large organizations would completely agree with that. 

Karl Sigler: For the smaller organizations, we sort of see sort of the opposite story. They may not be as complex, but then there's the staffing isn't as robust or maybe as experienced as some of the larger organizations. And sometimes those administrators, they are the ones that maybe have had too much put on their plate. And patching may be the last priority on their - on the list. So it's - there's a bunch of different reasons why this occurs. And I think complexity and just all of the hoops that need to be hopped through in order to get proper patching in place is a big part of that. 

Dave Bittner: So based on the information that you've gathered here, what are your recommendations? 

Karl Sigler: I think, first off, definitely organizations need to make sure that they have a good inventory of their networks. I think you mentioned it. It's an important point because, first and foremost, if you don't know what assets you have, you don't know what to patch. And that involves not just doing a network scan of IP addresses. That involves talking to your staff. That involves looking for odd protocols, you know, older protocols like NetBEUI or, Lord forbid, IPX and newer things like IPv6. A lot of people do their inventory just based on IPv4 addresses and don't realize that IPv6 is the de facto standard, and there may be exposed systems just from those addresses. So proper inventory is first. I think that organizations with a proper inventory will better be able to prioritize which systems are critical to them. 

Karl Sigler: And then assign responsibility to patching perhaps outside of your administrative staff. If you make your systems administrators responsible for patching, too, a lot of times, it's going to be deprioritized. Administrators, especially in this day and age, they're primarily focused on the availability of their systems to their users. Patching takes away some of that availability. So just to avoid issues, they may put that to the bottom of the list. But if you have a separate team dedicated to just making sure you're up to date on patches, that's their primary mission statement, I think you'll find that it gets done a lot faster and a lot more - in a cleaner fashion where it's not causing outages or problems with your infrastructure. 

Karl Sigler: And then, of course, formalize and document the process. Once you actually have it set up, make sure it's documented and that it's a living document, that it's constantly updated. That way, if your administrators or your patching team gets bitten by a rattlesnake on their way to work, they can go ahead and pull that documentation out and follow what the previous admins before them were doing. 

Dave Bittner: That's Karl Sigler from Trustwave. 

Dave Bittner: And I am pleased to be joined once again by Caleb Barlow. Caleb, always great to have you back. You know, I keep seeing all these headlines in the news about what they're calling the great resignation and, you know, people leaving their jobs for different jobs, for better jobs. I'm not quite sure how that aligns with cybersecurity, where we hear about so many open jobs. And I wanted to check in with you on that. I mean, where do you think this whole notion of a great resignation is going to resonate in our vertical? 

Caleb Barlow: Well, you know, with 4.4 million people quitting their jobs in September, I think it's going to get interesting. And a lot of this, Dave, is people just kind of coming back out of the pandemic saying, hey, is the grass any greener on the other side? Interestingly enough, I'm actually part of that group, recently finishing up... 

Dave Bittner: (Laughter). 

Caleb Barlow: ...My last gig as a CEO of a public security services company, right? So... 

Dave Bittner: Right. Right. 

Caleb Barlow: You know, you need not throw a stick very far before you're going to hit something. And what I think is really interesting about this, Dave, and as I start looking at opportunities and ventures and entrepreneurial ideas, one of the things I'm paying a lot of attention to that I never have in a job search before is how are the companies I am looking at being funded? 

Caleb Barlow: Now, you know, so you talk about the security industry. Not only are there a lot of open jobs, but it's also quite unique in that billions of dollars a year flow into this industry through a variety of different funding models. And how a company is funded may really impact your growth and, ultimately, your compensation over time. So, you know, and it's not just - let's face it. This mostly impacts you if you're working for a security vendor, but the same thought process applies if you're buying products from someone. How does their funding model impact their growth and the risk of working with them? 

Dave Bittner: Well, let's unpack that some. I mean, what are the various funding models, and how would they affect this? 

Caleb Barlow: Well, let's start with a private company. Let's say, you know, its founder-led early on, not uncommon in early-stage companies. Some pros here are high passion and commitment from leadership. But there's also some cons, Dave. Funding management and governance are all typically in the same individual. That literally puts all the eggs in one basket. So if anything happens to that founder, it can cause real issues at the company, whether that's a divorce, a death, an illness or just deciding to do something different. And if equity is provided to you, it may be a decade or more before it becomes liquid. 

Dave Bittner: What about some of the other funding models? 

Caleb Barlow: Well, I think the other kind of common funding model that we see a lot in the security space is venture capital, and what this involves is outside capital being brought in to help a company grow, often multiple rounds. And the game here is that each successive round, the valuation of the company should go up in an effort to offset any dilution for early investors. 

Caleb Barlow: Now, what I like about a VC model is governance is typically held at a board level. So now you're spreading out responsibility to multiple people versus all the eggs in one basket. Employee equity often becomes really real, even at some fairly low levels in the organization. There's an opportunity for upside. But some things you want to look for - who are the VCs? What's their success rate? What's the burn rate? How much is the company losing every quarter? How much are they growing? 

Caleb Barlow: And there's this thing called the Rule of 40, and I'm not going to explain it here because we don't have time, Dave, but Google it. This is often how people are evaluating these companies, is something called the Rule of 40. Now, the other big thing is what's the valuation? And how - just because a company took down a quarter of a billion dollars - and we see companies doing that - remember; they've got to grow into that in order to get that valuation back for the company - so great upside, lots of equity available and a much more reasonable risk posture versus a privately held company. 

Dave Bittner: Yeah. It strikes me that, you know, everybody has their own ability to deal with uncertainty. And as you go into different job opportunities, that's part of the equation there, right? I mean, a startup is going to be different than an established company, an IBM or a Microsoft or, you know, any of those big companies that have been around and are in no danger of going out of business anytime soon. 

Caleb Barlow: Well, that's exactly right. And part of what you have to evaluate when you're looking for a job is, where are you at in your career? Where are you at in your life in terms of your ability to take risk? And, you know, how do you want to balance what you might get paid versus the opportunity for upside? And this brings us to private equity. Now, this typically comes in when a company's established and growth is consistent. You know, private equity focuses on optimization, so things like EBITDA, process control, go to market. Think of it this way - where the company might have been flying via visual rules, private equity is going to get them flying by instrumentation, right? 

Caleb Barlow: And the opportunities for private equity get really interesting, especially if you're one of the top executives in the company. It can be very lucrative because your investment, what you might roll into the company, if you will, goes alongside that PE firm. Now, the downside is sometimes, a liquidity event might be five or 10 years out, and it comes with gates, right? So PEs, there's often not multiple rounds. It's oftentimes a MegaGrant, right? They buy the company, they put X amount in, and they want to see a return on that. But often, you'll see 12- to 15% of that investment reserved for employees. So these things can be very lucrative. You just got to be really patient to get there. 

Dave Bittner: Are there any red flags here - you know, things that folks should be on the lookout for or questions they should ask? 

Caleb Barlow: Well, I think one of the big red flags for me is to look at the difference between, when we go back to a privately funded company, the difference between a founder chasing a first equity event and a serial entrepreneur. You know, I love entrepreneurs, including people that come up with an idea the first time. But trust me on this; a serial entrepreneur, they're going to make decisions very differently than somebody who's been going through this for the very first time because they recognize that speed and momentum really matter. 

Dave Bittner: All right - well, interesting insights. Caleb Barlow, thanks for joining us. 

Tre Hester: And that's the CyberWire. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S., and we wish everyone a happy holiday. We'll be taking tomorrow and Friday off, but we'll be back as usual on Monday. For links to all of today's stories, check out our daily briefing at And for professionals and cybersecurity leaders who want to stay abreast of this rapidly evolving field, sign up for CyberWire Pro. It will save you time and keep you informed. Also, listen for us on your Alexa smart speaker. 

Tre Hester: The CyberWire podcast is proudly produced in Maryland out of the startup studios of DataTribe, where they're co-building the next generation of cybersecurity teams and technology. Our amazing CyberWire team is Elliott Peltzman, Brandon Karpf, Puru Prakash, Justin Sabie, Tim Nodar, Joe Carrigan, Carole Theriault, Ben Yelin, Nick Veliky, Gina Johnson, Bennett Moe, Chris Russell, John Petrik, Jennifer Eiben, Rick Howard, Peter Kilpe, and I'm Tre Hester, filling in for Dave Bittner. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you Monday.