This blog supplements a Black Hat USA 2021 talk given August 2021.
IBM Security X-Force threat intelligence researchers continue to track the infrastructure and activity of a suspected Iranian threat group ITG18. This group’s tactics, techniques and procedures(TTPs) overlap with groups known as Charming Kitten, Phosphorus and TA453.
Since our initial report on the group’s training videos in May 2020, X-Force has uncovered additional operational security errors by this group. Our continued analysis led to the discovery of a malicious tool that has not been previously linked to this threat actor, a custom Android backdoor we named “LittleLooter.” LittleLooter has only been observed being used by ITG18. X-Force is not aware of other threat actors leveraging this backdoor.
Additionally, from August 2020 through May 2021, X-Force observed ITG18 successfully compromise multiple victims aligned with the Iranian reformist movement. Given the timing and focus of the activity, this may have been in support of surveillance objectives leaving up to the June 2021 presidential elections in Iran. Finally, despite continued OPSEC errors, ITG18 appears to conduct a sizeable and often successful operation that heavily focuses on compromising personal webmail and social media accounts.
LittleLooter, ITG18’s Android Surveillance Tool
X-Force researchers discovered a file named “WhatsApp.apk” (md5: a04c2c3388da643ef67504ef8c6907fb) on infrastructure associated with ITG18 operations.
Figure 1: Open Directory listing for ITG18 server hosting victim exfil and LittleLooter (Source: X-Force)
Upon further analysis, X-Force determined “WhatsApp.apk” was Android malware that we named “LittleLooter” based on its information stealing capabilities.
For C2 communication, LittleLooter attempts to establish communication to the C2 server via HTTP POST requests and responses. The C2 server masquerades as an American flower shop and has been active since July 2020. The communication between the malware and the C2 server is compressed via GZIP, AES encrypted and BASE64 encoded. The AES key and initialization vector (IV) are hardcoded into the sample:
LittleLooter is functionally rich, providing ITG18 operators the following capabilities on an infected Android device:
The LittleLooter sample X-Force analyzed had the version number “5”, as well as an update capability if LittleLooter detected it was running a previous version. The tool updates itself by downloading a zip file from a URL on the C2 server: “http[:]//[C2server]/updates/update_[class name].zip” and replacing the old “classes.dex” file with the newer version from the zip file. Finally, LittleLooter is a modified version of Android malware reported by third party researchers several years ago and has likely been in use by ITG18 for years prior to our association with this threat group.
New Targeting Supports Possible Surveillance Objectives
In addition to the discovery of LittleLooter, X-Force researchers discovered ITG18 targeted Iranian individuals from late summer 2020 through spring 2021, which supports ITG18’s long-standing operations against Iranian citizens of interest. X-Force has found that despite public reporting of their OPSEC mistakes, ITG18 continues to leave archive files containing exfiltrated victim information on open servers and in open directories. The new analysis by X-Force revealed ITG18 exfiltrated roughly 120 gigabytes of information from approximately 20 individuals aligned with the Reformist movement in Iran.
Similar to exfiltrated information X-Force observed ITG18 steal last summer, this new stolen data was frequently extracted using legitimate utilities associated with the compromised accounts. Most recently, those were Telegram accounts, one of the most popular instant messaging services used in Iran. Telegram is one of the only foreign social media services permitted for use in Iran and was heavily used during the 2009 Green Movement to organize protests. X-Force researchers believe the victims’ Telegram data was possibly targeted during the summer 2020 through spring-2021 time frame to support monitoring any dissent or protests around Iran’s 2021 June Presidential Election.
While X-Force did not observe how initial access to the accounts was gained, ITG18 could have leveraged LittleLooter’s capabilities or used phishing/social engineering to gather account credentials from their targets.
Figure 2: Victim’s Telegram account data exported by ITG18 (Source: X-Force)
Based on the exfiltrated information X-Force observed, most of the victims were associated with Iran’s Reformist movement, a political faction within Iran that supports more leftist policies versus the current, conservative regime. The stolen data contained photos associated with the victim, contact lists, group memberships and conversations.
A Sizable Operation Marches On
The information X-Force has gleaned on ITG18’s activity, in conjunction with the training videos X-Force found in the summer of 2020, continues to paint a picture of a threat actor that likely leverages a considerable number of personnel. This is underpinned by how manual and labor-intensive ITG18 operations appear to be, from gaining initial access to individual victim accounts to carefully reviewing exfiltrated data.
Several open-source reports have noted how ITG18 operators, beyond simply sending phishing messages, will also attempt to chat, call, and even video conference with targets. This personalized attention to each compromised individual likely requires hands-on work from a large number of operators. While X-Force cannot confirm how many individuals and organizations ITG18 has targeted recently, what has been observed so far in 2021 is identification of over 60 servers hosting more than 100 phishing domains, which suggests there may be a large number of victims.
X-Force has also observed how manual ITG18 operations can be when reviewing exfiltrated information. Through some of the videos that X-Force discovered last summer, an ITG18 operator was observed spending hours in manual work. They were seen validating credentials by copying and pasting stolen victim usernames and passwords into a wide variety of websites, for just two victims. X-Force alone has observed almost 2 terabytes of compressed exfiltrated data on publicly accessible ITG18 servers since 2018. This likely represents only a small portion of the data actually stolen by this adversary. Coupled with the training videos X-Force discovered, suggesting ITG18 has enough turnover or growth to warrant training, this likely indicates ITG18 requires a significant number of personnel for operations, as well as for processing and evaluating exfiltrated information.
Anticipate Activity for the Foreseeable Future
ITG18 operations persist despite numerous public disclosures of their insecure activity and stolen data, speaking to the ability of this group to continue on its mission. X-Force researchers have high confidence that ITG18 activity will continue regardless of public reporting due to their broad objectives and continued success of their operations. We recommend reviewing the indicators below to identify potential malicious activity on your networks and on mobile devices.
If you have experienced a cyber incident and would like immediate assistance from IBM Security X-Force incident response, please call our hotline at 1-888-241-9812 (US) or +001-312-212-8034 (global). Learn more about X-Force’s threat intelligence and incident response services.
Indicators of Compromise
|developer-app[.]xyz||Domain||LittleLooter command and control server|
|http[:]//developer-app[.]xyz/crashes/||URL||Error/crash information location|
|http[:]//developer-app[.]xyz/updates/||URL||Exfiltrated information location|
|88.99.112[.]181||IPv4||Current server hosting developer-app[.]xyz|
|c2c1d804aeed1913f858df48bf89a58b1f9819d7276a70b50785cf91c9d34083||sha256 hash||LittleLooter, Filename WhatsApp.apk|
|c760adecea4dbb4dd262cb3f3848f993d5007b2e||sha1 hash||LittleLooter, Filename WhatsApp.apk|
|a04c2c3388da643ef67504ef8c6907fb||md5 hash||LittleLooter, Filename WhatsApp.apk|
Complete List of LittleLooter Commands
|apps_list||List installed apps|
|browser_history||Send browser history|
|call_number||Call a number|
|calls_log_incoming||List received calls|
|calls_log_missed||List missed calls|
|calls_recorder||Record voice call|
|camera_list||List camera devices|
|contacts||List contact information|
|device_info||List device information|
|directory_list||List files in a directory|
|error_list||Send error log|
|file_delete||Delete a file|
|file_download||Download a file|
|file_list||List files in storage|
|file_upload||Upload a file|
|live_stream||Record live screen|
|location_gps||GPS based location|
|location_gsm||GSM based location|
|network_activity||Show network activity|
|network_speed||Show network speed|
|network_state||Show network connectivity|
|off_bluetooth||Turn off Bluetooth|
|off_data||Turn mobile data off|
|off_wifi||Turn off Wi-Fi|
|on_bluetooth||Turn on Bluetooth|
|on_data||Turn mobile data on|
|on_wifi||Turn on Wi-Fi|
|picture_take||Take a picture|
|screen_state||Determinate whether screen is on or off|
|sim_card||List SIM card information|
|sms_drafts||List SMS drafts|
|sms_inbox||List SMS inbox|
|sms_outbox||List SMS outbox|
|sms_send||Send SMS message|
|storage_activity||List storage information|
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Author: Allison Wikoff