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Iranian hackers targeting Israel using ultra-exploitable coding flaw — experts

As governments and internet gurus warn world over Log4j, called one of the most serious vulnerabilities ever, firm says Iran-backed APT35 tried to hit 7 Israeli targets

Illustrative: Kids at a gamer festival in Tel Aviv, April 2, 2018. (Gili Yaari /FLASH90)
Illustrative: Kids at a gamer festival in Tel Aviv, April 2, 2018. (Gili Yaari /FLASH90)

A hacking group identified with the Iranian regime is using a computer vulnerability called one of the worst ever seen to attack Israeli targets, a cybersecurity firm said Wednesday.

Governments and internet security experts have raised alarms over the flaw, known as Log4j, which lets internet-based attackers easily seize control of everything from industrial control systems to web servers and consumer electronics.

According to Tel Aviv-based Check Point, hacking group APT35, also known as Charming Kitten, attempted to use the exploit against seven Israeli targets from the business and government sectors on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Check Point has blocked these attacks, as we witnessed communications between a server used by this group and the targets in Israel,” the firm said.

It did not detail what the targets were, but said no attempts by the group to go after entities in other countries were identified.

Microsoft and cybersecurity firm Mandiant also identified attempts by Iranian actors to use the flaw, along with Chinese, Turkish and North Korean hackers.

John Hultquist, a top analyst with Mandiant, wouldn’t name targets but said the Iranian actors are “particularly aggressive” and had taken part in ransomware attacks against Israel primarily for disruptive ends.

APT35, which is thought to be linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, is known mainly for carrying out phishing attacks on journalists, activists, NGOs and others, with many of its efforts focused on Israel.

Illustrative: A cybersecurity expert stands in front of a map of Iran as he speaks to journalists about the techniques of Iranian hacking, on September 20, 2017, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

The top US cybersecurity defense official, Jen Easterly, deemed the Log4j exploit “one of the most serious I’ve seen in my entire career, if not the most serious” in a call Monday with state and local officials and partners in the private sector.

Publicly disclosed last Thursday, it’s catnip for cybercriminals and digital spies because it allows easy, password-free entry.

Check Point said Tuesday it detected more than half a million attempts by known malicious actors to identify the flaw on corporate networks across the globe. It said the flaw was exploited to install cryptocurrency mining malware — which uses computing cycles to mine digital money surreptitiously — in five countries, but did not identify any locations outside Israel.

The affected software, written in the Java programming language, logs user activity. Developed and maintained by a handful of volunteers under the auspices of the open-source Apache Software Foundation, it is highly popular with commercial software developers. It runs across many platforms — Windows, Linux, Apple’s macOS — powering everything from webcams to car navigation systems and medical devices, according to the security firm Bitdefender.

A wide swath of critical industries, including electric power, water, food and beverage, manufacturing and transportation, were exposed, said Dragos, a top cybersecurity firm.

“I think we won’t see a single major software vendor in the world — at least on the industrial side — not have a problem with this,” said Sergio Caltagirone, the company’s vice president of threat intelligence.

The US Department of Homeland Security has ordered federal agencies to urgently find and patch bug instances because the small piece of code is so easily exploitable — and telling those with public-facing networks to put up firewalls if they can’t be sure.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, which Easterly runs, set up a resource page Tuesday to deal with the flaw it says is present in hundreds of millions of devices. Other heavily computerized countries were taking it just as seriously, with Germany activating its national IT crisis center.

Jen Easterly, Director of Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, speaks during the Summer meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Christina Almeida Cassidy)

Eric Goldstein, who heads CISA’s cybersecurity division, said no federal agencies were known to have been compromised. But these are early days.

“What we have here is an extremely widespread, easy to exploit and potentially highly damaging vulnerability that certainly could be utilized by adversaries to cause real harm,” he said.

Goldstein told reporters in a Tuesday evening call that CISA would be updating an inventory of patched software as fixes become available. “We expect remediation will take some time,” he said.

Apache Software Foundation said the Chinese tech giant Alibaba notified it of the flaw on November 24. It took two weeks to develop and release a fix.

Beyond patching, computer security pros have an even more daunting challenge: trying to detect whether the vulnerability was exploited — whether a network or device was hacked. That will mean weeks of active monitoring. A frantic weekend of trying to identify — and slam shut — open doors before hackers exploited them now shifts to a marathon.

Lull before the storm

“A lot of people are already pretty stressed out and pretty tired from working through the weekend — when we are really going to be dealing with this for the foreseeable future, pretty well into 2022,” said Joe Slowik, threat intelligence lead at the network security firm Gigamon.

Illustrative: People walk past a Microsoft office in New York, November 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Swayne B. Hall)

As yet, no successful ransomware infections leveraging the flaw have been detected, though Microsoft said in a blog post that criminals who break into networks and sell access to ransomware gangs had been detected exploiting the vulnerability in both Windows and Linux systems. It said criminals were also rapidly incorporating the vulnerability into botnets that corral multiple zombie computers for larcenous ends.

“I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to take two weeks before the effect of this is seen because hackers got into organizations and will be figuring out what to do to next.” John Graham-Cumming, chief technical officer of Cloudflare, whose online infrastructure protects websites from online threats.

Senior researcher Sean Gallagher of the cybersecurity firm Sophos said we’re in the lull before the storm.

“We expect adversaries are likely grabbing as much access to whatever they can get right now with the view to monetize and/or capitalize on it later on.” That would include extracting usernames and passwords.

Microsoft said the same Chinese cyberspy group that exploited a flaw in its on-premises Exchange Server software in early 2021 were using Log4j to “extend their typical targeting.”

Unvetted code

The Log4j episode exposes a poorly addressed issue in software design, experts say. Too many programs used in critical functions have not been developed with enough thought to security.

Open-source developers like the volunteers responsible for Log4j should not be blamed so much as an entire industry of programmers who often blindly include snippets of such code without doing due diligence, said Slowik of Gigamon.

Popular and custom-made applications often lack a “Software Bill of Materials” that lets users know what’s under the hood — a crucial need at times like this.

“This is becoming obviously more and more of a problem as software vendors overall are utilizing openly available software,” said Caltagirone of Dragos.

In industrial systems particularly, he added, formerly analog systems in everything from water utilities to food production have in the past few decades been upgraded digitally for automated and remote management.

“And one of the ways they did that, obviously, was through software and through the use of programs which utilized Log4j,” Caltagirone said.

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