Pawn Storm cyberespionage group increases activity, targets NATO

New attacks were observed this year from the group, including against people with links to the White House

Even though its activities were exposed last year, a cyberespionage group dubbed Pawn Storm has ramped up its efforts over the past few months, targeting NATO members and potentially the White House.

The first quarter of this year "has seen a great deal of activity from the group," researchers from antivirus firm, Trend Micro, said in a blog post. "Most notably this involved setting up dozens of exploit URLs and a dozen new command-and-control (C&C) servers targeting NATO members and governments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East."

The group has been active since at least 2007, and it has targeted military and government entities, defense contractors and media organizations. It uses several attack methods against potential victims, including spear phishing emails with malicious attachments, Web-based exploits launched from compromised websites and fake Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA) login pages.

Trend Micro documented the group's attacks in October 2014, revealing its main information-stealing tool is a malware program called Sednit, or Sofacy. The group's targets included military, government and media organizations in the U.S. and its allies, as well as Kremlin critics and Ukrainian activists and military. This led to speculation that Pawn Storm might serve the interests of the Russian government.

Some new Pawn Storm email attacks no longer include malicious attachments, but links to alleged news articles about geopolitical events. Those links lead to rogue websites that ask visitors to install a browser add-on allegedly needed to view HTML5 video content.

"The add-on in question turns out to be a version of X-Agent or Fysbis spyware if you're a Linux user, and Sednit if you're running Windows," the Trend Micro researchers said.

The group has also continued its phishing attacks using fake Microsoft OWA login pages, with some of the new targets being a large U.S. company that sells nuclear fuel to power stations, the armed forces of two European NATO members and the NATO Liaison in Ukraine.

The White House might also have been targeted, but indirectly. In January, the Pawn Storm group targeted two popular YouTube bloggers with Gmail phishing attacks, several days after they had interviewed President Barack Obama at the White House, the Trend Micro researchers said.

"This is a classic island hopping technique, in which attackers focus their efforts not on the actual target but on companies or people that might interact with that target, but which may have weaker security in place," they said. "In a similar way, a well-known military correspondent for a large U.S. newspaper was hit via his personal email address in December 2014, probably leaking his credentials. Later that month Operation Pawn Storm attacked around 55 employees of the same newspaper on their corporate accounts."

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