Today, we are releasing details on the threat group that we believe
is responsible for conducting financial crime on behalf of the North
Korean regime, stealing millions of dollars from banks worldwide. The
group is particularly aggressive; they regularly use destructive
malware to render victim networks inoperable following theft. More
importantly, diplomatic efforts, including the recent Department of
Justice (DOJ) complaint that outlined attribution to North Korea, have
thus far failed to put an end to their activity. We are calling this
We are releasing a special report, APT38: Un-usual
Suspects, to expose the methods used by this active and serious
threat, and to complement earlier efforts by others to expose these
operations, using FireEye’s unique insight into the attacker lifecycle.
We believe APT38’s financial motivation, unique toolset, and
tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) observed during their
carefully executed operations are distinct enough to be tracked
separately from other North Korean cyber activity. There are many
overlapping characteristics with other operations, known as “Lazarus”
and the actor we call TEMP.Hermit;
however, we believe separating this group will provide defenders with
a more focused understanding of the adversary and allow them to
prioritize resources and enable defense. The following are some of the
ways APT38 is different from other North Korean actors, and some of
the ways they are similar:
- We find there are clear
distinctions between APT38 activity and the activity of other North
Korean actors, including the actor we call TEMP.Hermit. Our
investigation indicates they are disparate operations against
different targets and reliance on distinct TTPs; however, the
malware tools being used either overlap or exhibit shared
characteristics, indicating a shared developer or access to the same
code repositories. As evident in the DOJ complaint, there are other
shared resources, such as personnel who may be assisting multiple
- A 2016
Novetta report detailed the work of security vendors
attempting to unveil tools and infrastructure related to the 2014
destructive attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment. This report
detailed malware and TTPs related to a set of developers and
operators they dubbed “Lazarus,” a name that has become synonymous
with aggressive North Korean cyber operations.
- Since then,
public reporting attributed additional activity to the “Lazarus”
group with varying levels of confidence primarily based on
malware similarities being leveraged in identified operations.
Over time, these malware similarities diverged, as did
targeting, intended outcomes and TTPs, almost certainly
indicating that this activity is made up of multiple operational
groups primarily linked together with shared malware development
resources and North Korean state sponsorship.
- Since then,
Since at least 2014, APT38 has conducted operations in more than 16
organizations in at least 11 countries, sometimes simultaneously,
indicating that the group is a large, prolific operation with
extensive resources. The following are some details about APT38 targeting:
- The total number of
organizations targeted by APT38 may be even higher when considering
the probable low incident reporting rate from affected
- APT38 is characterized by long planning,
extended periods of access to compromised victim environments
preceding any attempts to steal money, fluency across mixed
operating system environments, the use of custom developed tools,
and a constant effort to thwart investigations capped with a
willingness to completely destroy compromised machines
- The group is careful, calculated, and has
demonstrated a desire to maintain access to a victim environment for
as long as necessary to understand the network layout, required
permissions, and system technologies to achieve its goals.
- On average, we have observed APT38 remain within a victim
network for approximately 155 days, with the longest time within a
compromised environment believed to be almost two years.
just the publicly reported heists alone, APT38 has attempted to
steal over $1.1 billion dollars from financial institutions.
Investigating intrusions of many victimized organizations has
provided us with a unique perspective into APT38’s entire attack
lifecycle. Figure 1 contains a breakdown of observed malware families
used by APT38 during the different stages of their operations. At a
high-level, their targeting of financial organizations and subsequent
heists have followed the same general pattern:
- Information Gathering: Conducted research into an
organization’s personnel and targeted third party vendors with
likely access to SWIFT systems to understand the mechanics of SWIFT
- Initial Compromise: Relied on watering holes and exploited an
insecure out-of-date version of Apache Struts2 to execute code on a
- Internal Reconnaissance: Deployed malware to gather
credentials, mapped the victim’s network topology, and used tools
already present in the victim environment to scan systems.
- Pivot to SWIFT Servers: Installed reconnaissance malware and
internal network monitoring tools on SWIFT systems to further
understand how SWIFT is configured and being used. Deployed both
active and passive backdoors on SWIFT systems to access segmented
internal systems at a victim organization and avoid detection.
- Transfer funds: Deployed and executed malware to insert
fraudulent SWIFT transactions and alter transaction history.
Transferred funds via multiple transactions to accounts set up in
other banks, usually located in separate countries to enable money
- Destroy Evidence: Securely deleted logs, as well as deployed
and executed disk-wiping malware, to cover tracks and disrupt
Figure 1: APT38 Attack Lifecycle
APT38 is unique in that it is not afraid to aggressively destroy
evidence or victim networks as part of its operations. This attitude
toward destruction is probably a result of the group trying to not
only cover its tracks, but also to provide cover for money laundering operations.
In addition to cyber operations, public reporting has detailed
recruitment and cooperation of individuals in-country to support with
the tail end of APT38’s thefts, including persons responsible for
laundering funds and interacting with recipient banks of stolen funds.
This adds to the complexity and necessary coordination amongst
multiple components supporting APT38 operations.
Despite recent efforts to curtail their activity, APT38 remains
active and dangerous to financial institutions worldwide. By
conservative estimates, this actor has stolen over a hundred million
dollars, which would be a major return on the likely investment
necessary to orchestrate these operations. Furthermore, given the
sheer scale of the thefts they attempt, and their penchant for
destroying targeted networks, APT38 should be considered a serious
risk to the sector.
*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Threat Research authored by Threat Research Blog. Read the original post at: http://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2018/10/apt38-details-on-new-north-korean-regime-backed-threat-group.html