Organizations from the US, UK and Canada involved in
COVID-19 research have been targeted by a hacking group known as APT29.
APT, or Advanced Persistent Threat, groups are usually
nation-state or state-sponsored groups, working to compromise critical
infrastructure and gain access to networks belonging to other countries. Many
active hacking groups exist, and their allegiance is usually known.
The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre
(NCSC) and Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) say that APT29
(also known as ‘the Dukes’ or ‘Cozy Bear’) is likely a part of Russian
intelligence services. Law enforcement agencies, including NCSC, CSE, DHS CISA,
and the NSA issued a joint advisory regarding the recent activities of APT29.
“Throughout 2020, APT29 has targeted various
organizations involved in COVID-19 vaccine development in Canada, the United
States and the United Kingdom, highly likely with the intention of stealing
information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing
of COVID-19 vaccines,” states the advisory.
“APT29 is using custom malware known as ‘WellMess’ and
‘WellMail’ to target a number of organisations globally. This includes those
organisations involved with COVID-19 vaccine development. WellMess and WellMail
have not previously been publicly associated to APT29.”
The group probes IP-facing networks of organizations
working in COVID-19 research and is looking to exploit known vulnerabilities,
some with success. Examples include Citrix, Pulse Secure, FortiGate, and Zimbra
They also resort to spear phishing in an effort to obtain
legitimate credentials. After the group gains access to a particular system, it
deploys other tools and, in some cases, a malware named WellMess that allows
them to run shell commands, upload and download files.
The advisory also provides indicators of compromises and
some detection rules, indicating the need to patch existing systems and
networks. The law enforcement agencies haven’t said how successful APT29 was in
its attempts or if they managed to obtain the data they were looking for.