Last week, F-Secure Labs published a new study that provides a detailed analysis of a hacking group called “the Dukes”. The Dukes are what’s known as an advanced persistent threat (APT) – a type of hacking campaign in which a group of attackers is able to covertly infiltrate an organization’s IT network and steal data, often over a long period of time while remaining undetected. The report provides a comprehensive analysis of the Dukes’ history, and provides evidence that security researchers and analysts say proves the various attacks discussed in the report are attributable to the Duke group. Furthermore, the new information contained in the report strengthens previous claims that the group is operating with support from the Russian government.
Mikko Hypponen has said that attacker attribution is important, but it’s also complex and notoriously difficult, so the findings of the report have considerable security implications. I contacted several people familiar with the report to get some additional insights into the Dukes, the research, and what this information means to policy makers responsible for issues pertaining to national cybersecurity.
Artturi Lehtiö (AL) is the F-Secure Researcher who headed the investigation and authored the report. He has published previous research on attacks that are now understood to have been executed by the Dukes.
Patrik Maldre (PM) is a Junior Research Fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security, and has previously written about the Dukes, and the significance of this threat for global security.
Mika Aaltola (MA) is the Program Director for the Global Security research program at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs. He published an article of his own examining how groups like the Dukes fit into the geopolitical ambitions of nations that employ them.
Q: What is the one thing that people must absolutely know about the Dukes?
PM: They are using their capabilities in pursuit of Russian strategic interests, including economic and political domination in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Caucasus region, and a return to higher status at the international level.
AL: They are a long-standing key part of Russian espionage activity in the cyber domain.
MA: The geopolitical intention behind the vast majority of targets.
Q: We now know the Dukes are responsible for a number of high profile attacks, and seemingly target information about politics and defense. But what kind of information might they obtain with their attacks, and why would it be valuable?
AL: They might obtain information like meeting notes, memos, plans, and internal reports, not to mention email conversations. In essence, the Dukes aim to be a fly on the wall behind the closed doors of cabinets, meeting rooms, and negotiating tables.
PM: The targets of the Dukes include government ministries, militaries, political think tanks, and parliaments. The information that can be gained from these organizations includes, among other things, sensitive communication among high-level officials, details of future political postures, data about strategic arms procurement plans, compromising accounts of ongoing intelligence operations, positions regarding current diplomatic negotiations, future positioning of strategic military contingents, plans for future economic investments, and internal debates about policies such as sanctions.
MA: The targets are high value assets. Two things are important: data concerning the plans and decisions taken by the targeted organizations. Second, who is who in the organizations, what are the key decision-making networks, what possible weaknesses can be used and exploited, and how the organization can be used to gain access to other organizations.
Q: The Dukes are typically classified as an APT. What makes the Dukes different from other APTs?
MA: APT is a good term to use with the Dukes. However, there are some specific characteristics. The multi-year campaigning with relatively simple tools sets Dukes apart from e.g. Stuxnet. Also, the Dukes are used in psychological warfare. The perpetrators can even benefit from they actions becoming public as long as some deniability remains.
AL: The sophistication of the Dukes does not come as much from the sophistication of their own methods as it comes from their understanding of their targets’ methods, what their targets’ weaknesses are, and how those can be exploited.
PM: They are among the most capable, aggressive, and determined actors that have been publicly identified to be serving Russian strategic interests. The Dukes provide a very wide array of different capabilities that can be chosen based on the targets, objectives, and constraints of a particular operation. They appear to be acting in a brazen manner that indicates complete confidence in their immunity from law enforcement or domestic oversight by democratic bodies.
Q: There are 9 distinctive Duke toolsets. Why would a single group need 9 different malware toolsets instead of just 1?
AL: The Dukes attempt to use their wide arsenal of tools to stay one-step ahead of the defenders by frequently switching the toolset used.
MA: They are constantly developing the tools and using them for different targets. Its an evolutionary process meant to trick different “immunity” systems. Much like drug cocktails can trick the HIV virus.
PM: The different Duke toolsets provide flexibility and can be used to complement each other. For example, if various members of the Dukes are used to compromise a particular target and the infection is discovered, the incident responders may be led to believe that quarantines and remediation have been successful even though another member of the Dukes is still able to extract valuable information.
Q: Many people reading this aren’t involved in geopolitics. What do you think non-policy makers can take away from this whitepaper?
AL: This research aims to provide a unique window into the world of the Dukes, allowing people not traditionally involved with governmental espionage or hacking to gauge for themselves how their lives may be affected by activity like the Dukes.
PM: It is important for people to understand the threats that are associated with these technological developments. The understanding of cybersecurity should grow to the point where it is on par with the wider public’s understanding of other aspects of international security, such as military strategy or nuclear non-proliferation. This knowledge is relevant for the exercise of fundamental liberties that are enjoyed in democratic societies, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, as well as of basic rights such as voting in elections.
MA: The geopolitical intent is clearly present in this activity. However, the developments in this realm affects other types of cyber-attacks. Same methods spread. There is cross-fertilization, as in the case of Stuxnet that was soon adapted for other purposes by other groups.
F-Secure’s Business Security Insider blog recently posted a quick breakdown on how the Dukes typically execute their attacks, and what people can do to prevent becoming a victim of the Dukes or similar threats. Check it out for some additional information about the Dukes.
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January 19, 2018