Walking in your enemy's shadow: when fourth-party collection becomes attribution hell

Wednesday 4 October 12:00 - 12:30, Green room

Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade (Kaspersky Lab)
Costin Raiu (Kaspersky Lab)

Attribution is complicated under the best of circumstances. Sparse attributory indicators and the possibility of overt manipulation have proven enough for many researchers to shy away from the attribution space. And yet, we haven't even discussed the worst-case scenarios. What happens to our research methods when threat actors start hacking each other? What happens when threat actors leverage another's seemingly closed-source toolkit? Or better yet, what if they open-source an entire suite to generate so much noise that they'll never be heard?
Leaked documents have described how the standard practice of one espionage outfit infiltrating another has transcended into the realm of cyber in the form of fourth-party collection. While this represents an immediate failure for the victim intelligence service, the tragedy doesn't end there. Attackers can then go on to adopt the victim threat actor's toolkit and infrastructure, leveraging their data and access, and perpetrating attacks in their name. As interesting as this conversation could be in the abstract, we'd rather present examples from unpublished research that showcase how this is already happening in-the-wild.
Similarly, while we'd prefer to present threat intelligence research in its most polished and convincing form, fringe cases do appear. Strange activity overlaps between clusters, APT-on-APT operations, open-sourcing of proprietary tools, or repurposing of proprietary exploit implementations are some of the ways that the attribution and activity clustering structures start to break down and sometimes collapse. And this is not all an unintentional byproduct of our position as external observers; some threat actors are overtly adopting the TTPs of others and taking advantage of public reporting to blend their activities into the profiles researchers expect of other actors.

The material includes in-the-wild examples to substantiate previously hypothesized claims about attackers stealing each other's tools, repurposing exploits, and compromising the same infrastructure. These covert dynamics in the space of cyberespionage further substantiate the difficulties underlying accurate security research and the need to track threat actors continually. The examples we'll focus on come from unpublished research and unwritten observations from the original researchers themselves. The hope is to escape threat intel solipsism by providing a better framework to understand and discuss operations and actors and to understand how traditional espionage shadow games are being played out on the digital front.


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