'Elderwood' hackers still setting pace for zero-day exploits

Symantec believes the elite hacker group may be more diverse and well funded than has been believed

Further investigation into an exploit kit known as "Elderwood" shows the attackers using it are more numerous and possibly better funded than previously thought, according to new research from Symantec.

Elderwood is a hacking platform that has attack code which abuses software vulnerabilities in programs such as Adobe Systems' Flash multimedia program and Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser in order to spy on computers.

Symantec has been tracking Elderwood since 2012, noting that exploits contained in it have been used against defense-related companies, people involved in human rights campaigns and IT and supply-chain firms in the so-called "Operation Aurora" attacks.

The company thought a single group controlled Elderwood, although the security company's latest findings indicate a more diversified operation. Symantec doesn't say in which country it believes the attackers are located, but the Operation Aurora attacks are suspected to have originated in China.

After Operation Aurora came to light, Google came forward in early 2010. In an unprecedented move, it publicly said the attacks against its network originated in China, which fueled a diplomatic row with the U.S. Google said the attacks were aimed at compromising the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.

The U.S. and China subsequently clashed over cybersecurity issues, with U.S. companies becoming increasingly vocal over what they hold are technically sophisticated long-term infiltration campaigns originating from within China.

Symantec now thinks several hacking groups are using Elderwood, indicating that its developer may be selling the platform. Another possibility is that the core Elderwood hackers are developing exploits for their own in-house teams, the company wrote in a blog post Thursday.

"The attack groups are separate entities with their own agendas," Symantec wrote.

A sub-group called "Hidden Lynx" targets the defense industry and Japanese users. "Vidgrab" prefers targeting Uyghur dissidents in the western China region. Another group known as "Linfo" or "Icefog" goes after manufacturing firms, while "Sakurel" focuses on aerospace companies.

At the start of this year, the Elderwood exploit kit contained three zero-day vulnerabilities, which are software flaws that do not have a patch ready. Those vulnerabilities included one for Flash (CVE-2014-0502) and two for Internet Explorer (CVE-2014-0322 and CVE-2014-0324).

Another clue that all of the groups may be closely connected is the use of shared infrastructure. The Flash exploit and one for Internet Explorer, CVE-2014-0322, were hosted on the same server but used by all four groups, Symantec wrote.

Creating attack code for those vulnerabilities isn't cheap, which suggests if hacking groups are purchasing the exploits from Elderwood's developer, those organizations "must have substantial financial resources."

If all Elderwood-related attacks come from a larger group split into teams, then "these employees are either being well compensated for their work or have some other motivating factor that prevents them from selling exploits on the open market themselves."

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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