The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) released a Cybersecurity Advisory exposing malicious cyber activities by Russian military intelligence against U.S. and global organizations, starting from mid-2019 and likely ongoing. This advisory is being released as part of NSA’s routine and continuing cybersecurity mission to warn network defenders of nation state threats.
“Russian GRU Conducting Global Brute Force Campaign to Compromise Enterprise and Cloud Environments” details how the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) 85th Main Special Service Center (GTsSS) has targeted hundreds of U.S. and foreign organizations using brute force access to penetrate government and private sector victim networks. The advisory reveals the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) GTsSS actors used in their campaign to exploit targeted networks, access credentials, move laterally, and collect and exfiltrate data. It also arms system administrators with the mitigations needed to counter this threat.
Malicious cyber actors use brute force techniques to discover valid credentials often through extensive login attempts, sometimes with previously leaked usernames and passwords or by guessing with variations of the most common passwords. While the brute force technique is not new, the GTsSS uniquely leveraged software containers to easily scale its brute force attempts.
Once valid credentials were discovered, the GTsSS combined them with various publicly known vulnerabilities to gain further access into victim networks. This, along with various techniques also detailed in the advisory, allowed the actors to evade defenses and collect and exfiltrate various information in the networks, including mailboxes.
The advisory warns system administrators that exploitation is almost certainly ongoing. Targets have been global, but primarily focused on the United States and Europe. Targets include government and military, defense contractors, energy companies, higher education, logistics companies, law firms, media companies, political consultants or political parties, and think tanks.
NSA encourages Department of Defense (DoD), National Security Systems (NSS), and Defense Industrial Base (DIB) system administrators to immediately review the indicators of compromise (IOCs) included in the advisory and to apply the recommended mitigations. The most effective mitigation is the use of multi-factor authentication, which is not guessable during brute force access attempts.
Commenting on this, John Hultquist, VP of Analysis, Mandiant Threat Intelligence, said, “APT28 conducts intelligence collection against these targets regularly as part of its remit as the cyber arm of a military intelligence agency. The bread and butter of this group is routine collection against policy makers, diplomats, the military, and the defense industry and these sorts of incidents don’t necessarily presage operations like hack and leak campaigns. Despite our best efforts we are very unlikely to ever stop Moscow from spying. This is a good reminder that the GRU remains a looming threat, which is especially important given the upcoming Olympics, an event they may well attempt to disrupt.”