Critical Infrastructure Security, Malware, Network Security, Vulnerability Management

Data-wiping Shamoon targeting Middle East energy sector

Researchers are warning of the latest advanced cyber threat, Shamoon, which has targeted at least one energy company in the Middle East.

Also referred to as Disttrack, the virus is capable of overwriting computer files to the point that the targeted machine is unusable. On Wednesday, a Saudi Arabia oil company, Saudi Aramco released a statement about a sudden disruption in their network due to a virus.

The company did not confirm any link to Shamoon, though the malware has been speculated as the potential culprit.

"The disruption was suspected to be the result of a virus that had infected personal workstations without affecting the primary components of the network," said the statement from Saudi Aramco. The oil company said the virus had "no impact whatsoever" on its production operations.

Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Response, told on Thursday that Shamoon's attacks are limited but damaging. In an initial summary of the attack published upon discovery of the virus, Symantec said Shamoon had caused fewer than 50 infections. 

Victims won't see signs of compromise until after their computer has rebooted, Haley said.

“They will start to see strange things happen, since a lot of the files on their computer have been rewritten,” he said. “You may see error messages, and parts of the files on the computer will be rewritten to the point that the machine will fail to work at all.”

Once Shamoon infects one machine, it will try to copy itself onto others in the network.

One method the worm might use to target organizations is a mass email containing a message – such as a security update normally sent out to employees – to dupe recipients into clicking on an embedded link and thus installing it.

In an email on Thursday, Aviv Raff, chief technology officer at advanced threat detection company Seculert, informed that an attacker first takes control of an internal machine which has a connection to the internet and sets it as a proxy, which then allows the trojan to infect other internal machines -- most likely those which are not directly connected to the internet.

"After the intended action is complete, it wipes the machines sending information about the files through the proxy infected machine to the outside command-and-control server,” Raff said.

In a follow-up interview on Friday, he said the goal of the malware is still unclear, though whomever is behind the attacks may seek to do more than just destroy data.

"It does seem to be more than just wiping files, as they send the information about the wiped filed through another internal machine," Raff wrote.

Liam O Murchu, manager of operations at Symantec Security Response, said in an email that the attacker or attackers' intention could be to stage a protest.

"The end result is not yet fully known," Murchu said. "It's hard to say for sure why the threat seems to have targeted an energy sector company in the Middle East at this time,"

According to Haley, Shamoon is the name of the directory the malware was developed in. It also is an Arabic form of the name “Simon.”

Because of the malware's data-wiping capabilities, researchers initially wondered about potential links between Shamoon and Flame, a spy virus that also targeted computers in the Middle East, mainly Iran. It is believed the United States was behind Flame.

Kaspersky shot down theories that the attack incidents were related, however, in a blog posted Thursday, saying Shamoon used a different pattern when infecting machines.

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