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Why TajMahal Is the Most Alarming Malware to Date
The discovery of the malware called “TajMahal” is alarming, not because it attacked a certain diplomatic organization but because of the high number of malicious acts that it can do, totaling 80, and the malware’s stealth capability, evading discovery for nearly 5 years.
Researchers at Kaspersky Labrecently revealed that a diplomatic organization belonging to a Central Asian country, a type of organization that’s often subject to cyber-attack due to its line of work, was a victim of the malicious software (malware) TajMahal. This malware, the researchers said, remained undetected in the diplomatic organization’s network for nearly 5 years, with the first known legitimate sample timestamp from August 2013 and the last one from April 2018. The first confirmed date when TajMahal samples were seen on a victim’s machine is in August 2014. The researchers said they first discovered the malware on the victim’s machine in the autumn of 2018.
Old and New Hacking Tools
According to Kaspersky Lab researchers, TajMahal malware comes in two packages, one package is named “Tokyo” and the other “Yokohama”. Tokyo and Yokohama, the researchers said, share the same code base found on all infected computers of the said diplomatic organization. The Tokyo package facilitates the first stage of the malware infection, while the Yokohama package facilitates the deployment of the staggering 80 malicious cyber activities.
The Tokyo package uses PowerShell script, an old and tested strategy used by cyber attackers. McAfee Labsreport found that PowerShell attacks increased between 2016 and 2017, and IBM X-Forcealso noted the growth of PowerShell attacks from October 2017 to October 2018.
PowerShell is a legitimate tool used by system administrators in simplifying and automating the management of Microsoft Windows and Windows Server. Malicious actors, meanwhile, use PowerShell to hide their malicious code as the code is executed directly from the computer memory, making the attack fileless and thus stealthier than other types of attacks. PowerShell also allows remote access – the ability to access a computer from anywhere in the world so long as the computer is connected to the internet.
Yokohama, meanwhile, unleashes payloads – the portion of the malware which performs malicious actions, of which 80 of them were uncovered by Kaspersky Lab researchers. Old hacking techniques that form part of the Yokohama package include keylogging and audio, screen and webcam grabbing. In keylogging, every keystroke made by a computer user is recorded and sent to the malicious actors. In audio, screen and webcam grabbing, screenshots, audio or video, for instance, from VoIP audio or video calls, are covertly recorded and the sent to malicious actors.
Aside from the slew of time-tested hacking tools, Yokohama package, in particular, and TajMahal in general, packed the following new hacking capabilities:
Intercepting documents from print queue and stealing data from CD burnt and USB stick are particularly alarming as documents that are typically printed or copied to a CD or USB stick are sensitive and important. Any data stolen by the malware, whether text, audio, video or image, is then sent to the command and control server, a computer controlled by the attackers in the form of an XML file called "TajMahal" – the origin of the name of the malware.
According to the researchers at Kaspersky Lab, it’s not known how the TajMahal malware initially infected the diplomatic organization belonging to a Central Asian country. It isn’t also known is who is the individual or groups behind the TajMahal malware as this malware bears no resemblance with other known malware, which means that the attacker or attackers created this malware using new code base to evade detection. Anti-malware solutions typically block malware that bears small resemblance with other known malware.
To date, the only known victim of the TajMahal malware is the diplomatic organization. According to the researchers at Kaspersky Lab, it’s unlikely that the attackers went all that trouble of creating a new malware just for one victim, and that the likely theory is that there are other victims that have yet to be identified. The researchers said that this theory is supported by the fact that they “couldn’t see how one of the files in the VFS was used by the malware, opening the door to the possibility of additional versions of the malware that have yet to be detected”.
TajMahal malware is a type of malware that shows the characteristics of an advanced persistent threat (APT), a cyberattack in which the attacker or attackers gain unauthorized access to a network and remain undetected for a prolonged period. The usual suspects of APT attacks are nation-state actors – individuals who have the “license to hack” on behalf of a particular nation or state to gain access to valuable data or intelligence and can create cyber incidents that have international significance.
In recent years, however, common cyber criminals, those whose motive is simply for profit, have gotten hold of the APT tools used by nation-state actors, making these APT tools part of their arsenal in attacking, not just large organizations but also small and medium-sized organizations – attacks that rendered these organizations vulnerable.
For instance, the APT hacking tool called “EternalBlue” has joined a long line of reliable favorites of common cyber criminals. EternalBlue is one of the hacking tools leaked publicly in 2017 by the group known as “Shadow Brokers”. This hacking tool is believed to be created by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) for its surveillance activities. A month before the public release of EternalBlue, Microsoft issued a security update, fixing the vulnerability exploited by EternalBlue.
This particular security update, however, wasn’t timely installed on hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide, leading to the successful unleashing of WannaCry, a malware that uses the EternalBlue hacking tool in exploiting the vulnerabilities in the Windows SMBv1 server (patched by Microsoft a month earlier), remotely encrypting files and locking users out of their own files and spreading it to other computers within a network without user interaction. Since the EternalBlue leak, many malware integrated the EternalBlue feature.
Combating malware and ATP threats has become a daily reality for many organizations. It requires specialized skills and resources. When your organization needs help, our cybersecurity experts a phone call away. Contact ustoday.
Steve E. Driz