NATO and the EU formally condemned APT28 cyber espionage

Summary: NATO and the European Union condemn cyber espionage operations conducted by the Russia-linked threat actor APT28 against European countries.

Threat Actor: APT28 | APT28
Victim: European countries | European countries

Key Point:

  • NATO and the European Union have condemned cyber espionage operations carried out by the Russia-linked threat actor APT28 against European countries.
  • The APT28 group, also known as “Forest Blizzard,” “Fancybear,” or “Strontium,” has targeted various entities, including the Executive Committee of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and NATO entities.
  • The threat actor exploited a zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook (CVE-2023-23397) to compromise numerous email accounts.

The content:

NATO and the European Union condemned cyber espionage operations carried out by the Russia-linked threat actor APT28 (aka “Forest Blizzard”, “Fancybear” or “Strontium”) against European countries.

This week the Federal Government condemned in the strongest possible terms the long-term espionage campaign conducted by the group APT28 that targeted the Executive Committee of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

“The Federal Government’s national attribution procedure regarding this campaign has concluded that, for a relatively long period, the cyber actor APT28 used a critical vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook that remained unidentified at the time to compromise numerous email accounts.” reads the announcement published by the German Bundesregierung.

The nation-state actor exploited the zero-day flaw CVE-2023-23397 in attacks against European entities since April 2022. The Russia-linked APT also targeted NATO entities and Ukrainian government agencies.

The vulnerability is a Microsoft Outlook spoofing vulnerability that can lead to an authentication bypass.

In December 2023, Palo Alto Networks’ Unit 42 researchers reported that the group APT28 group exploited the CVE-2023-23397 vulnerability in attacks aimed at European NATO members.

The experts highlighted that over the previous 20 months, the APT group targeted at least 30 organizations within 14 nations that are probably of strategic intelligence significance to the Russian government and its military.

In March 2023, Microsoft published guidance for investigating attacks exploiting the patched Outlook vulnerability tracked as CVE-2023-23397.

In attacks spotted by Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence at the end of 2023, the nation-state actor primarily targeted government, energy, transportation, and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, and the Middle East.

According to Unit 42, APT28 started exploiting the above vulnerability in March 2022.

“During this time, Fighting Ursa conducted at least two campaigns with this vulnerability that have been made public. The first occurred between March-December 2022 and the second occurred in March 2023.” reads the report published by the company.

“Unit 42 researchers discovered a third, recently active campaign in which Fighting Ursa also used this vulnerability. The group conducted this most recent campaign between September-October 2023, targeting at least nine organizations in seven nations.”

The researchers pointed out that in the second and third campaigns, the nation-state actor continued to use a publicly known exploit for the Outlook flaw. This implies that the benefits of the access and intelligence produced by these operations were deemed more significant than the potential consequences of being discovered.

The list of targets is very long and includes:

  1. Other than Ukraine, all of the targeted European nations are current members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
  2. at least one NATO Rapid Deployable Corps
  3. critical infrastructure-related organizations within the following sectors:
    1. Energy
    2. Transportation
    3. Telecommunications
    4. Information technology
    5. Military industrial base

Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence also warned of Russia-linked cyber-espionage group APT28 actively exploiting the CVE-2023-23397 Outlook flaw to hijack Microsoft Exchange accounts and steal sensitive information.

In October, the French National Agency for the Security of Information Systems ANSSI (Agence Nationale de la sécurité des systèmes d’information) warned that the Russia-linked APT28 group has been targeting multiple French organizations, including government entities, businesses, universities, and research institutes and think tanks.

The French agency noticed that the threat actors used different techniques to avoid detection, including the compromise of low-risk equipment monitored and located at the edge of the target networks. The Government experts pointed out that in some cases the group did not deployed any backdoor in the compromised systems.

ANSSI observed at least three attack techniques employed by APT28 in the attacks against French organizations:

  • searching for zero-day vulnerabilities [T1212, T1587.004];
  • compromise of routers and personal email accounts [T1584.005, T1586.002];
  • the use of open source tools and online services [T1588.002, T1583.006]. ANSSI investigations confirm that APT28 exploited the Outlook 0-day vulnerability CVE-2023-23397. According to other partners, over this period, the MOA also exploited other vulnerabilities, such as that affecting Microsoft Windows Support Diagnostic Tool (MSDT, CVE-2022-30190, also called Follina) as well as
    than those targeting the Roundcube application (CVE-2020-12641, CVE-2020-35730, CVE-2021-44026).

According to the recent announcement published by the German government, the APT28 campaign targeted government authorities, logistics companies, armaments, the air and space industry, IT services, foundations, and associations in Germany, other European countries, and Ukraine. This group was also responsible for the 2015 cyber attack on the German Bundestag. These actions violate international cyber norms and require particular attention, especially during election years in many countries.

The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs also condemned long-term cyber espionage activities by the group APT28. The Ministry’s statement also confirmed that Czech institutions have been targeted by the Russia-linked APT28 exploiting the Microsoft Outlook zero-day from 2023

“Based on information from intelligence services, some Czech institutions have also been the target of cyber attacks exploiting a previously unknown vulnerability in Microsoft Outlook from 2023. The mode of operation and the focus of these attacks matched the profile of the actor APT28.” reads the announcement. “Affected subjects were offered technical recommendations and cooperation to enhance security measures. The actor APT28 has also been the subject to active measures in Czechia as part of the global operation Dying Ember.”

NATO issued similar statements, the Council of the European Union and the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom.

“The European Union and its Member States, together with international partners, strongly condemn the malicious cyber campaign conducted by the Russia-controlled Advanced Persistent Threat Actor 28 (APT28) against Germany and Czechia.” states the Council of the European Union.

“Russia’s pattern of behavior blatantly disregards the Framework for Responsible State Behavior in Cyberspace, as affirmed by all United Nations Member States.  The United States is committed to the security of our allies and partners and upholding the rules-based international order, including in cyberspace.” reads the statement published by the US government. “We call on Russia to stop this malicious activity and abide by its international commitments and obligations.  With the EU and our NATO Allies, we will continue to take action to disrupt Russia’s cyber activities, protect our citizens and foreign partners, and hold malicious actors accountable.”

The APT28 group (aka Fancy BearPawn StormSofacy GroupSednit, BlueDelta, and STRONTIUM) has been active since at least 2007 and it has targeted governments, militaries, and security organizations worldwide. The group was involved also in the string of attacks that targeted 2016 Presidential election.

The group operates out of military unity 26165 of the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) 85th Main Special Service Center (GTsSS).

Most of the APT28s’ campaigns leveraged spear-phishing and malware-based attacks.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, Russia)


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