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Iranian Hackers Employs PowerShell Backdoor to Bypass Security Products

Charming Kitten APT targets medical research and academic organizations.

 

Security researchers from Cybereason have discovered that an advanced persistent threat organization with inbounds links to Iran has modified its malware toolset to incorporate a unique PowerShell-based implant named PowerLess Backdoor. 

The Boston-headquartered cybersecurity firm identified a new toolkit used by the Phosphorus group, also known as Charming Kitten and APT35, that installs malicious Microsoft PowerShell code to operate as a remote access backdoor to download further malware payloads.

"The PowerShell code runs in the context of a .NET application, thus not launching 'powershell.exe' which enables it to evade security products," Daniel Frank, a senior malware researcher at Cybereason, explained. "The toolset analyzed includes extremely modular, multi-staged malware that decrypts and deploys additional payloads in several stages for the sake of both stealth and efficacy." 

The hacking group that was first identified in 2017, has employed many attacks in recent years, including ones in which the adversary pretended to be journalists or academicians to trick targets into downloading malware and collecting confidential material. 

Last month, Check Point Research disclosed specifics of an espionage operation that concerned the hacking team abusing the Log4Shell vulnerabilities to install a modular backdoor dubbed CharmPower for follow-on attacks. 

Cybereason discovered that the latest additions to its arsenal form an entirely new toolset that includes the PowerLess Backdoor, which can download and run other modules like a browser info-stealer and a keylogger. Also potentially linked to the same developer of the backdoor are a number of other malware artifacts, counting an audio recorder, an earlier variant of the information stealer, and what the researchers suspect to be an unfinished ransomware variant coded in .NET. 

Additionally, infrastructure overlaps have been noticed between the Phosphorus group and a new ransomware strain named Memento, which initially emerged in November 2021 and took the unusual step of locking files into password-protected archives, then encrypting the password and erasing the original files after their attempts to encrypt the data directly were stopped by endpoint protection. 

"The activity of Phosphorus with regard to ProxyShell took place in about the same time frame as Memento. Iranian threat actors were also reported to be turning to ransomware during that period, which strengthens the hypothesis that Memento is operated by an Iranian threat actor,” Frank added.
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