McAfee Defender’s Blog: Operation North Star Campaign

By and on Jul 29, 2020

Building Adaptable Security Architecture Against the Operation North Star Campaign

Operation North Star Overview

Over the last few months, we have seen attackers take advantage of the pandemic as a cover to launch cyberattacks. One such example is a campaign that McAfee Advanced Threat Research (ATR) observed as an increase in malicious cyber activity targeting the Aerospace & Defense industry. In this campaign McAfee ATR discovered a series of malicious documents containing job postings taken from leading defense contractors to be used as lures, in a very targeted fashion. This type of campaign has appeared before, in 2017 and 2019 using similar techniques, but the 2020 campaign has some distinct differences in implants, infrastructure and spear phishing lures. For a more detailed analysis of this campaign please see the McAfee ATR blog.

This blog is focused on how to build an adaptable security architecture to increase your resilience against these types of attacks and specifically, how McAfee’s portfolio delivers the capability to prevent, detect and respond against the tactics and techniques used in the Operation North Star campaign.

Gathering Intelligence on Operation North Star

As always, building adaptable defensive architecture starts with intelligence. In most organizations, the Security Operations team is responsible for threat intelligence analysis, as well as threat and incident response. McAfee Insights (https://www.mcafee.com/enterprise/en-us/lp/insights-dashboard1.html#) is a great tool for the threat intel analyst and threat responder. The Insights Dashboard identifies prevalence and severity of emerging threats across the globe which enables the Security Operations Center (SOC) to prioritize threat response actions and gather relevant cyber threat intelligence (CTI) associated with the threat, in this case the Operation North Star campaign. The CTI is provided in the form of technical Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) as well as MITRE ATT&CK framework tactics and techniques. As a threat intel analyst or responder, you can drill down to gather more specific information on Operation North Star, such as prevalence and links to other sources of information. You can further drill down to gather more specific actionable intelligence such as indicators of compromise and tactics/techniques aligned to the MITRE ATT&CK framework.

From the McAfee ATR blog, you can see that Operation North Star leverages tactics and techniques common to other APT campaigns, such as spear phishing for Initial Access, exploited system tools and signed binaries, modification of Registry Keys/Startup folder for persistence and encoded traffic for command and control.

Defensive Architecture Overview

Today’s digital enterprise is a hybrid environment of on-premise systems and cloud services with multiple entry points for attacks like Operation North Star. The work from home operating model forced by COVID-19 has only expanded the attack surface and increased risk for successful spear phishing attacks if organizations did not adapt their security posture and increase training for remote workers. Mitigating the risk of attacks like Operation North Star requires a security architecture with the right controls at the device, on the network and in security operations (sec ops). The Center for Internet Security (CIS) Top 20 Cyber Security Controls provides a good guide to build that architecture. The following outlines the key security controls needed at each layer of the architecture to protect your enterprise against Operation North Star tactics and techniques.

Initial Access Stage Defensive Overview

According to Threat Intelligence and Research, the initial access is performed either through vulnerability exploitation or spear phishing attachments. As attackers can quickly change spear phishing attachments or link locations, it is important to have layered defenses that include user awareness training and response procedures, intelligence and behavior-based malware defenses on email systems, web proxy and endpoint systems, and finally sec ops playbooks for early detection and response against suspicious email attachments or other phishing techniques The following chart summarizes the controls expected to have the most effect against initial stage techniques and the McAfee solutions to implement those controls where possible.

MITRE Tactic MITRE Techniques CSC Controls McAfee Capability
Initial Access Spear Phishing Attachments (T1566.001) CSC 7 – Email and Web Browser Protection

CSC 8 – Malware Defenses

CSC 17 – User Awareness

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection,

Web Gateway (MWG), Advanced Threat Defense, Web Gateway Cloud Service (WGCS)

Initial Access Spear Phishing Link (T1566.002) CSC 7 – Email and Web Browser Protection

CSC 8 – Malware Defenses

CSC 17 – User Awareness

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection,

Web Gateway (MWG), Advanced Threat Defense, Web Gateway Cloud Service (WGCS)

Initial Access Spear Phishing (T1566.003) Service CSC 7 – Email and Web Browser Protection

CSC 8 – Malware Defenses

CSC 17 – User Awareness

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection,

Web Gateway (MWG), Advanced Threat Defense, Web Gateway Cloud Service (WGCS)

For additional information on how McAfee can protect against suspicious email attachments, review this additional blog post.

https://www.mcafee.com/blogs/other-blogs/mcafee-labs/mcafee-protects-against-suspicious-email-attachments/

Exploitation Stage Defensive Overview

The exploitation stage is where the attacker gains access to the target system. Protection against Operation North Star at this stage is heavily dependent on adaptable anti-malware on both end user devices and servers, restriction of application execution, and security operations tools like endpoint detection and response sensors.

McAfee Endpoint Security 10.7 provides a defense in depth capability including signatures and threat intelligence to cover known bad indicators or programs, as well as machine-learning and behavior-based protection to reduce the attack surface against Operation North Star and detect new exploitation attack techniques. This attack leverages weaponized documents with links to external template files on a remote server. McAfee Threat Prevention and Adaptive Threat Protection modules protect against these techniques.

Additionally, MVISION EDR provides proactive detection capability on Execution and Defensive Evasion techniques identified in the exploit stage analysis. Please read further to see MVISION EDR in action against Operation North Star.

The following chart summarizes the critical security controls expected to have the most effect against exploitation stage techniques and the McAfee solutions to implement those controls where possible.

MITRE Tactic MITRE Techniques CSC Controls McAfee Portfolio Mitigation
Execution User Execution (T1204) CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

CSC 17 Security Awareness

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection, Application Control (MAC), Web Gateway and Network Security Platform
Execution Command and Scripting Interpreter (T1059)

 

CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection, Application Control (MAC), MVISION EDR
Execution Shared Modules (T1129) CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection, Application Control (MAC)
Persistence Boot or Autologon Execution (T1547) CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7 Threat Prevention, MVISION EDR
Defensive Evasion Template Injection (T1221) CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection, MVISION EDR
Defensive Evasion Signed Binary Proxy Execution (T1218) CSC 4 Control Admin Privileges

CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection, Application Control, MVISION EDR
Defensive Evasion Deobfuscate/Decode Files or Information (T1027)

 

CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 8 Malware Defenses

Endpoint Security Platform 10.7, Threat Prevention, Adaptive Threat Protection, MVISION EDR

For more information on how McAfee Endpoint Security 10.7 can prevent some of the techniques used in the Operation North Star exploit stage, review this additional blog post.

https://www.mcafee.com/blogs/other-blogs/mcafee-labs/mcafee-amsi-integration-protects-against-malicious-scripts/

Impact Stage Defensive Overview

The impact stage is where the attacker encrypts the target system, data and perhaps moves laterally to other systems on the network. Protection at this stage is heavily dependent on adaptable anti-malware on both end user devices and servers, network controls and security operation’s capability to monitor logs for anomalies in privileged access or network traffic. The following chart summarizes the controls expected to have the most effect against impact stage techniques and the McAfee solutions to implement those controls where possible.

MITRE Tactic MITRE Techniques CSC Controls McAfee Portfolio Mitigation
Discovery Account Discovery (T1087) CSC 4 Control Use of Admin Privileges

CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 6 Log Analysis

MVISION EDR, MVISION Cloud, Cloud Workload Protection
Discovery System Information Discovery (T1082) CSC 4 Control Use of Admin Privileges

CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 6 Log Analysis

MVISION EDR, MVISION Cloud, Cloud Workload Protection
Discovery System Owner/User Discovery (T1033) CSC 4 Control Use of Admin Privileges

CSC 5 Secure Configuration

CSC 6 Log Analysis

MVISION EDR, MVISION Cloud, Cloud Workload Protection
Command and Control Encrypted Channel (T1573) CSC 8 Malware Defenses

CSC 12 Boundary Defenses

Web Gateway, Network Security Platform

Hunting for Operation North Star Indicators

As a threat intel analyst or hunter, you might want to quickly scan your systems for any indicators you received on Operation North Star. Of course, you can do that manually by downloading a list of indicators and searching with available tools. However, if you have MVISION EDR and Insights, you can do that right from the console, saving precious time. Hunting the attacker can be a game of inches so every second counts. Of course, if you found infected systems or systems with indicators, you can take action to contain and start an investigation for incident response immediately from the MVISION EDR console.

Proactively Detecting Operation North Star Techniques

Many of the exploit stage techniques in this attack use legitimate Windows processes and applications to either exploit or avoid detection. We demonstrated above how the Endpoint Protection Platform can disrupt the weaponized documents but, by using MVISION EDR, you can get more visibility. As security analysts, we want to focus on suspicious techniques used by winword.exe as this attack leverages weaponized documents. On MVISION EDR we got the first threat detection on the monitoring dashboard for WINWORD.EXE at a Medium Risk.

The dashboard also provides a detailed look at the process activity which, in this case, is the attempt to perform the template injection.

 

We also received 2 alerts due to the rundll32 usage:

1)            Loaded non-common file with specified parameters via rundll32 utility

2)            Suspicious process would have been cleaned by Endpoint Protection (in observe mode)

Monitoring or Reporting on Operation North Star Events

Events from McAfee Endpoint Protection and Web Gateway play a key role in Lazarus incident and threat response. McAfee ePO centralizes event collection from all managed endpoint systems. As a threat responder, you may want to create a dashboard for Lazarus-related threat events to understand current exposure. Here is a list (not exhaustive) of Lazarus-related threat events as reported by McAfee Endpoint Protection Platform (Threat Prevention module), with On-Access Scan and Global Threat Intelligence enabled, and McAfee Web Gateway with Global Threat Intelligence enabled as well.

McAfee Endpoint Threat Prevention Events
Generic Trojan.dz Generic Dropper.aou
RDN/Generic PWS.y W97M/Downloader.cxz
Trojan-FRVP!2373982CDABA Trojan-FRVP!AF83AD63D2E3
Generic Dropper.aou W97M/Downloader.bjp
Trojan-FSGY!3C6009D4D7B2 W97M/MacroLess.y
Trojan-FRVP!CEE70135CBB1 Artemis!9FD35BAD075C
W97M/Downloader.cxu RDN/Generic.dx
Trojan-FRVP!63178C414AF9 Artemis!0493F4062899
Exploit-cve2017-0199.ch Artemis!25B37C971FD7

 

McAfee Web Gateway Events
Generic Trojan.dz W97M/Downloader.cxz
RDN/Generic PWS.y BehavesLike.Downloader.dc
Trojan-FRVP!2373982CDABA W97M/MacroLess.y
Trojan-FSGY!3C6009D4D7B2 BehavesLike.Win32.Dropper.hc
BehavesLike.Downloader.dc Artemis
BehavesLike.Downloader.tc

Summary

To defeat targeted threat campaigns, defenders must collaborate internally and externally to build an adaptive security architecture which will make it harder for threat actors to succeed and build resilience in the business. This blog highlights how to use McAfee’s security solutions to prevent, detect and respond to Operation North Star and attackers using similar techniques.

McAfee ATR is actively monitoring this campaign and will continue to update McAfee Insights and its social networking channels with new and current information. Want to stay ahead of the adversaries? Check out McAfee Insights for more information.

About the Author

Mo Cashman

Mo Cashman is one of McAfee’s passionate leaders in cyber security. As an Enterprise Architect and recently appointed Principle Engineer at McAfee, Mo inspires our next generation security professionals and advises our largest global customers on how to make security an enabler for their business. Mo’s passion is to change the way we think about, ...

Read more posts from Mo Cashman

Filippo Sitzia

Filippo is a Regional Solution Architect working for the EMEA region. His focus is around cyber defense strategies, threats and technology innovation. After a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering and different IT Engineering roles, Filippo joined McAfee in 2014. He enjoys coding and exploring new threats as well as penetration testing techniques.

Read more posts from Filippo Sitzia

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