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Midnight Blizzard, also known as APT29, is a threat actor group suspected to be attributed to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The initial emergence of Midnight Blizzard operations occurred in 2008 when the first MiniDuke malware samples were compiled according to Kaspersky. APT29 employs a wide variety of advanced techniques in their cyber operations in support of the SVR’s intelligence requirements.
Midnight Blizzard has been suspected of being involved in several high-profile attempted intrusions and compromises, including the Office Monkeys campaign in 2014 targeting a Washington D.C.-based private research institute, the Pentagon in 2015, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and US think tanks in 2016, the Norwegian Government and several Dutch ministries in 2017. The group has also targeted organisations within the education sector that are affiliated with medical research. It is highly likely that the group targets such institutions for espionage purposes, in order to exfiltrate data relating to western medical advances.
Midnight Blizzard applies a wide range of bespoke tools developed in a variety of programming languages, which demonstrates the resources at their disposal. The group also utilises publicly available commodity tools such as Mimikatz and Cobalt Strike.
Midnight Blizzard heavily targets organisations responsible for influencing the foreign policy of NATO countries. It has also been documented as focusing on organisations from a range of sectors, including education, energy, telecommunications, government and military.
Threat Actor Motivations
The motives of Midnight Blizzard can be evaluated by observing the strategies they apply within the context of their campaigns. The group is known for its interest in secret geopolitical data that would be advantageous t o the Russian state. Midnight Blizzard operates within the context of the SVR, an intelligence agency which has disruptive capabilities to conduct advanced cyber espionage operations. As such, Midnight Blizzard acts with the motivations of espionage purposes.
Threat Actor Activity Timeline
2014: Midnight Blizzard carries out the ‘Office Monkeys’ campaign targeting a Washington D.C.-based private research institute
2015: Midnight Blizzard gains initial access to the Pentagon’s network via phishing and introduced the ‘Hammertoss’ technique to use dummy Twitter accounts for command-and-control (C2) communication
2016: In a campaign known as ‘GRIZZLY STEPPE,’ Midnight Blizzard breached the DNC servers close to the US election via a phishing campaign directing victims to change their passwords using a spoofed website
2017: Targets the Norwegian Government and several Dutch ministries TLP Status:
2019: Compromises three EU National Affairs ministries and a Washington D.C.-based embassy of an EU nation state
2020: Conducts vulnerability scanning of public-facing IP addresses to compromise COVID-19 vaccine developers in Canada, the US, and the UK
2020: Distributes SUNBURST malware, attacking SolarWinds Orion software to drop a remote access trojan (RAT) that impacted many global organisations
2023: Midnight Blizzard conducts targeted social engineering operations via Microsoft Teams
PinchDuke: This was the first toolkit widely attributed to Midnight Blizzard. The toolkit consists of multiple loaders and a core information stealer trojan. The malware gathers system configuration information, steals user credentials, and collects user files from the compromised host, transferring these via HTTP(S) to a C2 server. PinchDuke was reported as being used from November 2008 to the summer of 2010 and was observed in attacks against Chechnya, Turkey, Georgia, and several former Soviet states before evolving to the CosmicDuke toolkit in 2010.
CosmicDuke: The CosmicDuke toolkit is an information stealer malware. It is augmented by a variety of components that the toolkit operators may include with the main component to provide additional functionalities, such as multiple methods of establishing persistence, as well as modules that attempt to exploit privilege escalation vulnerabilities. CosmicDuke was utilised from January 2010 to the summer of 2015 and was observed targeting a wide range of organisations including those in the energy and telecommunications sectors, and governments and the military.
GeminiDuke: The GeminiDuke toolset consists of a core information stealer, a loader and multiple persistence-related components. Unlike CosmicDuke and PinchDuke, it primarily collects information on the target system’s configuration. GeminiDuke was actively utilised from January 2009 to December 2012.
CozyDuke: CozyDuke is a modular malware platform formed around a core backdoor component. It can be instructed by the C2 server to download and execute arbitrary modules, providing a vast array of functionalities. In addition to modules, CozyDuke can also be instructed to download and execute other, independent executables. In some observed cases, these executables were self-extracting archive files containing common hacking tools, such as PSExec and Mimikatz, combined with script files that execute these tools. CozyDuke was utilised by Midnight Blizzard from January 2010 to the spring of 2015.
OnionDuke: The OnionDuke toolkit includes at least a dropper, a loader, an information stealer trojan and multiple modular variants. OnionDuke was the only tool used by Midnight Blizzard that is not spread using phishing and instead was spread via a malicious Tor exit node. OnionDuke was observed from February 2013 to the spring of 2015
SeaDuke: SeaDuke is a backdoor malware that focuses on executing commands retrieved from its C2 server, such as uploading and downloading files, executing system commands, and evaluating additional Python code. SeaDuke was active from October 2014 to May 2016 and was observed during the DNC attack by Midnight Blizzard in 2015.
Hammertoss: Midnight Blizzard likely used Hammertoss as a backup for their two primary backdoors to execute commands and maintain access in the case of the group’s principle toolset being discovered. Hammertoss was in use from at least January 2015 to July 2015.
CloudDuke: CloudDuke is a malware toolset known to consist of, at least, a downloader, a loader and two backdoor variants, including MiniDionis/Cloudlook. The CloudDuke downloader will download and execute additional malware from a preconfigured location. CloudDuke was in use primarily during the summer of 2015.
Cobalt Strike Beacon: In the November 2018 phishing campaign linked to Midnight Blizzard, the threat actor group utilised Cobalt Strike Beacon instead of any bespoke malware or toolkits. The Beacon payload was configured with a modified variation of the publicly available “Pandora” Malleable C2 Profile and used the C2 domain – pandorasong[.]com.
PowerDuke: PowerDuke has been delivered to targets via emails with Microsoft Word or Excel file with malicious macros. If successfully exploited, a PNG image is downloaded from the compromised web server and the PowerDuke trojan is hidden in the PNG images using steganography. PowerDuke was first seen in August 2016 and used in the most recent operation widely attributed to Midnight Blizzard, in the November 2016 post-election spear phishing campaign.
POSHSPY: POSHSPY is a backdoor that leverages PowerShell and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI). Its use of a PowerShell payload means that only legitimate system processes are utilised and that the malicious code execution can only be identified through enhanced logging or in memory. POSHSPY has been active since at least early 2015.
Indicators of Compromise
Midnight Blizzard Associated IP Addresses:
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Midnight Blizzard Associated File Hashes (SHA256):
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