Researchers have uncovered an extremely stealthy trojan for Linux systems that attackers have been using to siphon sensitive data from governments and pharmaceutical companies around the world.
The previously undiscovered malware represents a missing puzzle piece tied to "Turla," a so-called advanced persistent threat (APT) disclosed in August. For at least four years, the campaign targeted government institutions, embassies, military, education, research, and pharmaceutical companies in more than 45 countries.
The unknown attackers — who are probably backed by a nation-state, according to Symantec — were known to have infected several hundred Windows-based computers by exploiting a variety of vulnerabilities, at least two of which were zero-day bugs. The malware was notable for its use of a rootkit that made it extremely hard to detect.
Now researchers have detected Linux-based malware used in the same campaign. Turla was already ranked as one of the top-tier APTs, in the same league as the recently disclosed Regin for instance. The discovery of the Linux component suggests it is bigger than previously thought and may presage the discovery of still more infected systems.
Like its Windows counterparts, the Linux trojan is extremely stealthy. It can't be detected using the common netstat command. To conceal itself, the backdoor sits dormant until attackers send it unusually crafted packets that contain "magic numbers" in their sequence numbers. The malware may have sat unnoticed on at least one victim computer for years, although researchers still have not confirmed that suspicion. The trojan is able to run arbitrary commands even though it requires no elevated system privileges.
Even after its discovery, the Linux component remains a mystery. The underlying executable file is written in the C and C++ languages and contains code from previously written libraries, a property that gives the malicious file self-reliance. The code is also stripped of symbol information, making it hard for researchers to reverse engineer or analyze. As a result, Baumgartner said the trojan may have capabilities that have not yet been uncovered.
Administrators who want to check for Turla-infected Linux systems can check outgoing traffic for connections to news-bbc.podzone[.]org or 188.8.131.52, which are the addresses of known command and control channels hardcoded into the Linux trojan. Admins can also build a signature using a tool called YARA that detects the strings "TREX_PID=%u" and "Remote VS is empty!"
Given the power and stealth of the backdoor — not to mention its connection to one of the more sophisticated espionage campaigns discovered to date — it wouldn't be surprising for the discovery to open the door to discoveries of more infections or malware components. "The research is ongoing," Baumgartner said. "I would assume at some point this is going to bridge into another finding because of the way this backdoor is used."