Charming Kitten, the nation-state actor affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has been attributed to a bespoke spear-phishing marketing campaign that delivers an up to date model of a fully-featured PowerShell backdoor known as POWERSTAR.
“There have been improved operational safety measures positioned within the malware to make it tougher to research and accumulate intelligence,” Volexity researchers Ankur Saini and Charlie Gardner said in a report revealed this week.
The menace actor is one thing of an professional on the subject of using social engineering to lure targets, usually crafting tailor-made pretend personas on social media platforms and fascinating in sustained conversations to construct rapport earlier than sending a malicious hyperlink. It is also tracked underneath the names APT35, Cobalt Phantasm, Mint Sandstorm (previously Phosphorus), and Yellow Garuda.
Latest intrusions orchestrated by Charming Kitten have made use of different implants comparable to PowerLess and BellaCiao, suggesting that the group is using an array of espionage instruments at its disposal to understand its strategic aims.
POWERSTAR is one other addition to the group’s arsenal. Additionally known as CharmPower, the backdoor was first publicly documented by Verify Level in January 2022, uncovering its use in reference to assaults weaponizing the Log4Shell vulnerabilities in publicly-exposed Java purposes.
It has since been put to make use of in at the very least two different campaigns, as documented by PwC in July 2022 and Microsoft in April 2023.
Volexity, which detected a rudimentary variant of POWERSTAR in 2021 distributed by a malicious macro embedded in DOCM file, stated the Might 2023 assault wave leverages an LNK file inside a password-protected RAR file to obtain the backdoor from Backblaze, whereas additionally taking steps to hinder evaluation.
“With POWERSTAR, Charming Kitten sought to restrict the danger of exposing their malware to evaluation and detection by delivering the decryption methodology individually from the preliminary code and by no means writing it to disk,” the researchers stated.
“This has the added bonus of performing as an operational guardrail, as decoupling the decryption methodology from its command-and-control (C2) server prevents future profitable decryption of the corresponding POWERSTAR payload.”
The backdoor comes with an in depth set of options that allow it to remotely execute PowerShell and C# instructions, arrange persistence, accumulate system info, and obtain and execute extra modules to enumerate working processes, seize screenshots, seek for information matching particular extensions, and monitor if persistence parts are nonetheless intact.
Additionally improved and expanded from the sooner model is the cleanup module that is designed to erase all traces of the malware’s footprint in addition to delete persistence-related registry keys. These updates level to Charming Kitten’s continued efforts to refine its strategies and evade detection.
Volexity stated it additionally detected a distinct variant of POWERSTAR that makes an attempt to retrieve a hard-coded C2 server by decoding a file saved on the decentralized InterPlanetary Filesystem (IPFS), signaling an try and make its assault infrastructure extra resilient.
The event coincides with a MuddyWater’s (aka Static Kitten) use of beforehand undocumented command-and-control (C2) framework known as PhonyC2 to ship malicious payload to compromised hosts.
“The final phishing playbook utilized by Charming Kitten and the general objective of POWERSTAR stay constant,” the researchers stated. “The references to persistence mechanisms and executable payloads inside the POWERSTAR Cleanup module strongly suggests a broader set of instruments utilized by Charming Kitten to conduct malware-enabled espionage.”