Transparent Tribe, an advanced persistent threat (APT) group that has been active since at least 2013, has begun deploying a new mobile malware tool in its cyber espionage campaigns.
Researchers from Kaspersky this week reported observing the group actively targeting Android users in India with spyware disguised as a couple of popular apps.
Once installed on a system, the malware has been observed downloading new apps and accessing SMS messages, call logs, and the device’s microphone. Transparent Tribe’s new Android spyware tool also tracks an infected device’s location and enumerates and uploads files from it to a remote attacker-controlled server, Kaspersky said in a report Wednesday.
Giampaolo Dedola, senior security researcher at Kaspersky’s Global Research and Analysis Team, says available data suggests the attackers are hosting the Android package files on specific websites and luring users to those locations via social engineering.
According to Kaspersky, one of the two Android applications that Transparent Tribe is using to distribute the spyware is an open source video player that, when installed, serves up an adult video as a distraction while installing additional malware in the background. The second app masquerades as “Aarogya Setu,” a COVID-19 tracking app developed by the Indian government’s National Informatics Center.
Both apps try to install another Android package file on the compromised system. The package is a modified version of AhMyth, an open source Android remote access tool (RAT) that is freely available for download on GitHub. According to Kaspersky, the modified version lacks some features available on the original, such as the ability to steal pictures from an Android phone. But it also includes new features that improve the malware’s data exfiltration capabilities.
“The malware looks interesting because Transparent Tribe is investing in it and is modifying the code according to their needs,” Dedola says. “It probably means [the malware] will be used in future attacks, and defenders should keep an eye on this threat to prevent the infections.”
Transparent Tribe’s latest malware highlights the threat group’s constant efforts to expand its toolset and its operations, according to Dedola.
Transparent Tribe, aka PROJECTM and MYTHIC LEOPARD, is a highly active threat group that has been mainly targeting Indian military, government, and diplomatic targets. The group’s primary malware up until now has been “Crimson RAT,” a custom .NET-based RAT delivered via malicious documents with an embedded macro. Kaspersky researchers have also observed the group using another .NET- and Python-based RAT called Peppy.
An analysis by Kaspersky — and another one in 2016 by Proofpoint — identified Crimson as Transparent Tribe’s primary tool for conducting cyber espionage, at least thus far. The multi-component tool is equipped with a wide range of capabilities, including those that allow an attacker to remotely manage file systems on infected computers, upload or download files, capture screenshots, record keystrokes, record audio and video, and steal passwords stored in browsers. Among the components in the Crimson framework is “USB Worm,” a tool that Kaspersky described as capable of stealing files from removable drives and spreading to other systems by infecting removable media.
According to Dedola, though Transparent Tribe is a highly active group, it is not especially sophisticated. The group uses a fairly simply infection chain based on spear-phishing emails and documents with embedded VBA code. The group also has a tendency to reuse open source malware and exploits.
“What makes this group particularly dangerous is the number of activities,” Dedola notes. “Since the first operations, they never stopped their attacks, and they were able to compromise thousands of victims, which are probably related to government or military organizations. It seems they don’t need zero-day exploits or kernel-mode malware to achieve their goals.”
Over the past year, Transparent Tribe has been observed engaging in targeted attacks on organizations in Afghanistan and multiple other countries. But it is likely that the victims in these countries have ties to India and Afghanistan, Dedola says.
“Based on malicious documents used to infect the victims and information on previous attacks, we know they target military and diplomatic personnel,” he says. “We suppose they are politically motivated due to the type of victims and the use of espionage tools developed to steal information.”
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio