Biomedical firms and their partners are being targeted by an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actor in a campaign that delivers Tardigrade malware. Initial analyses of Tardigrade malware suggest it is a sophisticated threat from the SmokeLoader malware family. SmokeLoader is a generic backdoor that provides threat actors with persistent access to victims’ networks and gives them the ability to download additional modules or other stealthier malware variants onto systems.
Tardigrade malware is a much stealthier and more dangerous malware variant than SmokeLoader. It is far more sophisticated and has greater autonomy. The malware can make decisions about the files to modify and can move laterally within victims’ networks without requiring communication with a command-and-control server. The malware is also capable of immediate privilege escalation to the highest level.
Tardigrade malware is thought to be used for espionage purposes but has far greater capabilities. In addition to exfiltrating sensitive data from pharmaceutical and biomedical firms and vaccine chain companies, the malware is capable of causing major damage to IT systems to disrupt critical processes, including preparing systems for ransomware attacks after sensitive data have been exfiltrated. The analysis of the malware is ongoing, and no specific threat actor has been identified as conducting the attacks, but the attacks are believed to be conducted by a nation-state threat actor.
BIO-ISAC warns of Targeted Attacks on the Biomanufacturing Sector
The Bioeconomy Information Sharing and Analysis Center (BIO-ISAC) has recently issued a warning about Tardigrade malware due to the threat it poses to vaccine manufacturing infrastructure, even though relatively little is currently known about the malware. The early disclosure is believed to be in the public interest.
All firms in the biomanufacturing sector and their partners have been warned that they are likely targets and should assume that attacks will occur. Steps should therefore be taken to ensure that appropriate cybersecurity measures have been implemented to block attacks and limit the damage that can be caused should n attack be successful.
It is too early to tell how many methods are being used to distribute Tardigrade malware, but from the infections detected so far, the APT group behind the attacks is known to be using phishing emails to deliver Tardigrade, with infected file attachments the most likely method of delivery. Hyperlinks in emails that direct individuals to malicious websites where infected files or malware installers are downloaded could also be used.
An analysis of the attacks also indicates the malware could infect USB drives and transfer the malware automatically when those storage devices are used on uninfected computers. That means that if USB drives are used on devices isolated from the network, they too could be infected.
Defending Against Tardigrade Malware
Defending against attacks requires an advanced antispam solution that is not reliant on antivirus engines to detect malicious files. Antivirus engines are effective at blocking known malware variants, but not against previously undetected variants. Since Tardigrade malware is metamorphic, machine learning technology and sandboxing are required to block samples that are not detected as malicious by AV engines. Antivirus software should be installed on all devices which is capable of behavioral analysis, as the malware itself may not be detected as malicious.
A web filter should be installed and should be configured to block downloads of executable files from the Internet, such as .js, .com, .exe, and .bat files. It is also important to raise awareness of the threat of malicious messages with the workforce and teach all employees how to identify phishing emails. Training should cover cybersecurity best practices and inform employees about the procedures to follow if a suspicious email is received. Spear phishing attacks will likely be conducted on key targets. It is therefore recommended to review LinkedIn and other social media posts to identify individuals who may be targeted.
Network segmentation is vital for preventing the spread of Tardigrade malware. In the event of a device being compromised, network segmentation will limit the harm that can be caused. Tests should be run to ensure that corporate, guest, and operational networks are properly segmented. All firms in the biomanufacturing sector should identify their most sensitive data and ensure that it is appropriately protected, and all key infrastructure should be regularly backed up, with backups stored offline. BIO-ISAC also recommends inquiring about lead times for key bio-infrastructure components that need to be replaced