CCleaner Hack May Have Been A State-Sponsored Attack On 18 Major Tech Companies

from the good-luck-out-there dept

At the beginning of this week, reports emerged that Avast, owner of the popular CCleaner software, had been hacked. Initial investigations by security researchers at Cisco Talos discovered that the intruder not only compromised Avast’s servers, but managed to embed both a backdoor and “a multi-stage malware payload” that rode on top of the installation of CCleaner. That infected software — traditionally designed to help scrub PCs of cookies and other tracking software and malware — was subsequently distributed by Avast to 700,000 customers (initially, that number was thought to be 2.27 million).

And while that’s all notably terrible, it appears initial reports dramatically under-stated both the scope and the damage done by the hack. Initially, news reports and statements by Avast insisted that the hackers weren’t able to “do any harm” because the second, multi-stage malware payload was never effectively delivered. But subsequent reports by both Avast and Cisco Talos researchers indicate this payload was effectively delivered — with the express goal of gaining access to the servers and networks of at least 18 technology giants, including Intel, Google, Microsoft, Akamai, Samsung, Sony, VMware, HTC, Linksys, D-Link and Cisco itself.

Cisco’s researchers say they obtained a copy of the hackers’ command-and-control server from an unnamed source. That server contained detailed logs of the 700,000 or so computers that had “phoned home” to the hackers earlier this month. Subsequent investigation has concluded that the hackers didn’t really care about most of the infected customers, and that this may have been a sophisticated state-sponsored attack specifically designed access and copy internal information and trade secrets from major tech firms:

“That target list presents a new wrinkle in the unfolding analysis of the CCleaner attack, one that shifts it from what might have otherwise been a run-of-the-mill mass cybercrime scheme to a potentially state-sponsored spying operation that cast a wide net, and then filtered it for specific tech-industry victims. Cisco and security firm Kaspersky have both pointed out that the malware element in the tainted version of CCleaner shares some code with a sophisticated hacking group known as Group 72, or Axiom, which security firm Novetta named a Chinese government operation in 2015.”

One configuration file on the attackers’ server was also set for China’s time zone, though of course neither of these are enough solid evidence to definitively conclude state-sponsored involvement… yet. In an updated post to its website, Avast has been forced to concede that their initial claim that the second, multi-staged payload was never delivered was false, and that the total number of compromised machines at these targeted companies is “at least in the order of hundreds”:

“First of all, analysis of the data from the CnC server has proven that this was an APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) programmed to deliver the 2nd stage payload to select users. Specifically, the server logs indicated 20 machines in a total of 8 organizations to which the 2nd stage payload was sent, but given that the logs were only collected for little over three days, the actual number of computers that received the 2nd stage payload was likely at least in the order of hundreds. This is a change from our previous statement, in which we said that to the best of our knowledge, the 2nd stage payload never delivered.”

Cisco also warned impacted tech companies that deleting the software itself off of infected PCs is no guarantee that the threat has been mitigated, since the payload may have installed a second payload on their networks with its own, still-active command and control server. Like previous attacks of this type, the reported scope of the sophisticated attack is likely to only grow as researchers dig deeper.

As several outlets were quick to correctly note the attack on CCleaner highlights a supply-side security problem at a growing number of software companies like Ukrainian accounting software MeDoc and South Korea-based firm Netsarang, which both passed on malware to trusting clients in the last few months. Traditionally we’ve comforted ourselves by insisting we’re safe if we just avoid untrusted app stores, dubious attachments, or questionable links — but this attack further up the software supply chain erodes public trust, which could deter users from using or updating essential protection.

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Companies: avast, cisco

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Comments on “CCleaner Hack May Have Been A State-Sponsored Attack On 18 Major Tech Companies”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You can have cyber espionage and cyber sabotage as components of full-spectrum warfare, but you cannot fight a war between nations strictly online. At a certain point, war includes physical contact, which is not possible in cyberspace. You can pwn a server, but whoever has physical access to that still wins that battle.

The role of espionage and sabotage as aspects of non-combat, non-diplomatic conflict are mostly understood in international law; just because it happened online doesn’t mean it is something completely new.

While both detection and attribution become more difficult online, this situation is not far removed from the US placing cameras in the copy machines sold to the Soviet government.

Anonymous Coward says:

I feel somewhat comforted that this attack was focused on high profile targets and that most of us were probably totally off the hackers radar.

However, I still got rid of CCleaner and did what I was told on r/techsupport to properly remove most malware. Even though I’m 99% I had the 64-bit version installed and possibly not even the infected version number (I forgot to check I uninstalled it so fast), I’m still feeling particularly paranoid. Is there anything to do short of reformatting the hard drive that would make me close to as safe as just buying a new computer?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Roll back” meaning what? Any built-in rollback facility could be compromised, which would require a full reinstall at minimum; if we’re talking about important computers at Cisco, they’ll want to verify the BIOS chip too. And make sure those “data files you’ve recently created or edited” aren’t going to re-infect the new system when you put them back.

Anonymous Coward says:

State sponsored or not, it looks very poorly targetted. Looking at the first three companies mentioned: Intel, Google, Microsoft. Intel have their own security software. Google don’t use Windows and do security research. Microsoft have their own security software and should understand their OS better than any other.

While I can see some of these companies using Avast for benchmarking or comparision, I can’t see a valid reason for any of them using CCleaner for general use. Looks more like a spray and pray approach, hoping that someone would download and use CCleaner so as to gain a foothold.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Google don’t use Windows

They do. They release software that’s meant to run on Windows, which means they have Windows (somewhere) to test it on.

Microsoft have their own security software and should understand their OS better than any other.

"should", yes, but the history of software security flaws shows otherwise. (If a software author fully understood their software, it would be bug-free.)

And keep in mind these C&C logs showed the computers that were compromised, not those they wished to compromise.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Traditionally we’ve comforted ourselves by insisting we’re safe if we just avoid untrusted app stores, dubious attachments, or questionable links — but this attack further up the software supply chain erodes public trust, which could deter users from using or updating essential protection.

I’ve never believed this, but then again I work in IT so perhaps am more skeptical of the claims made by the industry.

I’ve always believed the greatest risk to security are the auto-update mechanisms in applications – browsers, the operating system itself (e.g. Windows) and so on. An attacker just needs to compromise one system, as in this case, and millions can be infected using a program they’ve used for years, if not decades.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While I do agree with you it’s easier to keep these update systems in good security shape with all the latest security patches than leaving millions of not so savvy users to update by themselves. Pro-tip: they won’t update. Auto-update is still the best approach.

I would argue that a decentralized system in some sort of blockchain configuration to distribute updates that could be used by smaller players for instance. The update would only be delivered after the developer authenticated the new hashes, files, certificates with each part of the network. Of course I’m speculating here so there might be safer, better ways but we do need better solutions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

To the best of my knowledge, the only full auditing conducted on any software out there was on Truecrypt once the original team shut things down.

That was a good audit but hardly "full". Similar audits, and better audits, have been done on other open-source software. SeL4 was formally proven correct for example (under certain assumptions, if the model was correctly specified).

Anonymous Coward says:


linksys was one of the domains they went after.

IIRC, linksys is the default domain you get when you are connected to a linksys router.

I’m thinking they were going after everything they thought was valuable or knew they could compromise. I think it’s stretch to say those companies were specifically targeted. More like the hackers were hoping to get lucky.

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