The threat actor behind a cyber espionage campaign that has been known to target users in Taiwan has recently set sights on Japan, according to researchers at Trend Micro.
The campaign, dubbed “Blackgear” by Trend Micro, involves a piece of malware tracked by several security firms as “Elirks.” This backdoor Trojan, mainly designed for stealing information, has been around since 2010, and in 2012 researchers reported that it had been used to target Taiwan, including government agencies.
The Taiwan attacks are part of the Blackgear campaign and Trend Micro believes the same threat group is also behind recent attacks targeting Japan.
The Blackgear attacks observed by the security firm typically start with a phishing or watering hole attack set up to deliver a malware tool known as a binder. This binder drops decoy documents and the downloaders responsible for fetching the actual backdoors, including Elirks and Ymalr.
Both Elirks and Ymalr obtain command and control (C&C) configuration information from blogging services, allowing the attackers to keep the location of the actual C&C server hidden and easily change the server that is in use.
Trend Micro believes Blackgear has expanded to Japan because the fake documents included in the infection routine are now written in Japanese and the blogging services used for C&C activity are based in Japan.
Palo Alto Networks reported in June that it had noticed similarities between the 2012 attacks targeting Taiwan and a recent attack in Japan. Both attacks used decoy documents related to aviation (e.g. airline tickets), they leveraged similar phishing emails and the same malware families.
However, Palo Alto Networks said it had not found any reliable evidence to indicate that the same adversary was behind both attacks. The security firm pointed out that it had seen several Elirks variants in the past couple of years that used Japanese blogging services for C&C communications.
Palo Alto Networks pointed out that it had also identified an Elirks variant during its analysis of Scarlet Mimic, a campaign mainly targeting entities related to Uyghur and Tibetan activism. These attacks may have been conducted by the Chinese government, but experts only found circumstantial evidence to support this theory.