The Microsoft Security Intelligence Report (SIR) provides a regular snapshot of the current threat landscape, using data from more than 600 million computers worldwide.
The latest report (SIRv19) was released this week and includes a detailed analysis of the actor group STRONTIUM – a group that uses zero-day exploits to collect the sensitive information of high-value targets in government and political organizations.
Since 2007, the group has targeted:
- Government bodies
- Diplomatic institutions
- Military forces and installations
- Political advisors and organizations
Attack vectors: How they manage to get in
A STRONTIUM actor attack usually has two components:
- A spear phishing attempt that targets specific individuals within an organization. This phishing attempt is used to gather information about potential high-value targets and steal their login credentials.
- A second phase that attempts to download malware using software vulnerabilities to further infect the target computers and spread through networks.
We estimate the STRONTIUM actor targeted several thousand people with spear phishing attacks during the first half of 2015. The goal of the spam email attack is to get a list of high-value individuals with access to sensitive information.
The phishing email usually attempts to trick the target into believing there has been an unauthorized user accessing their account, as shown in Figure 1:
Figure 1: Example of a STRONTIUM phishing email
The email includes a link to a website under the attacker’s control that prompts the victim to change their password. If the attack is successful, the stolen credentials can be used to access the victim’s email account.
Visiting the malicious website can also send sensitive information to the attacker, even when no credentials are entered. The sensitive information can include details of the victim’s PC -including its IP address, browser and operating system versions, and any browser add-ons installed. This information can be used to target the individual with software exploits.
The second phase of a STRONTIUM actor attack is to install malware on the compromised machine in an attempt to gain access to other machines on the network.
Usually, the malware is installed through a malicious link in an email. However, we have also seen social networks used to spread malicious links. The highly-targeted emails use current events, such as an upcoming conference, to entice the victim to click a link for “additional information”. The email is sent from well-known email providers and sender names that are designed to look credible, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Example of a STRONTIUM targeted email with malicious links
When the link is clicked, a drive-by-download attack is launched using software vulnerabilities. The attacks often use zero-day exploits that target vulnerabilities for which the affected software vendor has not yet released a security update.
If the attack is successful the attacker tries to compromise other machines within the targeted organization to gather more sensitive information.
See the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report (SIRv19) for more technical details on the methods used by STRONTIUM.
You can reduce the likelihood of a successful compromise in a number of ways. Use an up-to-date real-time security product, such as Windows Defender for Windows 10.
In an enterprise environment you should also:
- Keep all your software up-to-date and deploy security updates as soon as possible
- Enforce segregation of privileges on user accounts and apply all possible safety measures to protect administrator accounts from compromise
- Conduct enterprise software security awareness training, and build awareness about malware infection prevention
- Institute multi-factor authentication
TheMicrosoft Security Intelligence Report (SIRv19) has more advice and detailed analysis of STRONTIUM, as well as other information about malware and unwanted software.
The Microsoft Malware Protection Center’s November Threat Intelligence Report also includes detailed information, resources, and advice to mitigate the risk of advanced persistent threats (APTs).