Researchers find email used in RSA hack

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   Aug 26, 2011

Email with malicious attachment uploaded to online scanning service

Researchers at F-Secure have managed to obtain the file used in the targeted attack against security vendor RSA back in March.

At the time, RSA was admirably open about the attack and explained that one of its employees had received a targeted email containing a malicious Excel spreadsheet. This file used a zero-day vulnerability in Adobe's Flash Player to launch a trojan which eventually gave the attackers access to RSA's systems.

Usually when a malicious file appears in the wild, anti-malware vendors have little problem getting hold of a sample, using honeypots, spam traps and customer feedback. However, because this particular attack was so highly targeted, the anti-malware community failed to get hold of a sample.

However, a researcher at F-Secure has now found the original email containing the file as an attachment. It had been uploaded to the VirusTotal online scanning service and, consequently, was shared among the anti-malware community. It had hitherto gone unnoticed because, rather than the spreadsheet itself being uploaded, the email containing it was uploaded as an Outlook message file.

The email was sent to one employee at EMC, RSA's parent company, with three other employees being cc'd. It claimed to come from a recruitment service and the attachment claimed to contain the recruitment plan for 2011. Of course it didn't, and by opening the attachment the employee unknowingly opened a backdoor to the company's systems.

There has been much debate in the anti-malware community about the term 'advanced persistent threat' (APT), with several people claiming that many attacks that are named thus use techniques that are far from advanced. The email used in this attack suggests that this may be the case here as well. However, F-Secure's Mikko Hyppönen explains on the company's blog: "if somebody hacks a security vendor just to gain access to their customers' systems, we'd say the attack is advanced, even if some of the interim steps weren't very complicated."

More at F-Secure's blog here.

Martin Lee and Daren Lewis ( will present a paper on mapping the activities of advanced persistent threats at the VB2011 conference in a few weeks' time. VB2011 takes place 5-7 October in Barcelona, Spain. Registration is now open.

Posted on 26 August 2011 by Virus Bulletin



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