Security researchers revealed that series of "Watering Hole" has been conducted exploiting a IE8 zero-day vulnerability to target U.S. Government experts working on nuclear weapons research.

The news is not surprising but it is very concerning, the principal targets of the attacks are various groups of research such as the components of U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Energy, the news has been confirmed by principal security firms and by Microsoft corporate.

The flaw has been used in a series of "watering hole" attacks, let’s remind that "Watering Hole" is a technique of attack realized compromising legitimate websites using a “drive-by” exploit. The attackers restrict their audience to a individuals interested to specific content proposed by targeted website, in this way when the victim visits the page a backdoor Trojan is installed on his computer.


The website compromised to exploit the IE8 zero-day is the Dept. of Energy's Site Exposure Matrices (SEM) website, the site provides information on "nuclear-related illnesses" linked to Dept. of Energy facilities of employees who are experiencing health problems as a result of their professional activities.
Security community supposes that behind the exploits of IE8 zero-day flaw there is a group of Chinese hackers known as "DeepPanda" that hijacked visitors to a compromised website to deploy Poison Ivy Trojan through the execution of a "drive-by download exploit".

Security firm FireEye revealed that the new IE8 zero-day exploit is able to work against Internet Explorer 8 for all versions of Windows XP and above, including Windows Server 2003, 2008 and R2.

This particular exploit checks for OS version, and only runs on Windows XP. We are able to reproduce the code execution and confirm it’s a working zero-day exploit against IE8. During our research we also found the exploit constructs a ROP chain on non-ASLRed msvcrt.dll, and we verified it could also work against IE8 on Windows 7. So we believe there should be some other exploits targeting IE8 on Windows 7.” FireEye post states.

At the moment there isn’t information on the information stolen but it is clear that the campaign discovered is related to a cyber espionage activity due the numerous classified documents managed by targeted departments.

Microsoft issued a security advisory on Friday announcing its investigation on the event and confirming it as a "remote code execution vulnerability.", Microsoft confirmed on Friday that the IE8 zero-day vulnerability exists in Internet Explorer 8 for all versions of Windows XP and above are affected, including Windows Server 2003, 2008 and R2.

Microsoft noted that IE6 users on Windows XP, IE7, IE9, and IE10 users on Windows 8 and Surface tablets, are not affected by the security flaw.

Other precious suggestions provided by the advisory are:

Mitigating Factors:
  • By default, Internet Explorer on Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2008 R2 runs in a restricted mode that is known as Enhanced Security Configuration. This mode mitigates this vulnerability.
  • By default, all supported versions of Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, and Windows Mail open HTML email messages in the Restricted sites zone. The Restricted sites zone, which disables script and ActiveX controls, helps reduce the risk of an attacker being able to use this vulnerability to execute malicious code. If a user clicks a link in an email message, the user could still be vulnerable to exploitation of this vulnerability through the web-based attack scenario.
  • An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user. Users whose accounts are configured to have fewer user rights on the system could be less impacted than users who operate with administrative user rights.
  • In a web-based attack scenario, an attacker could host a website that contains a webpage that is used to exploit this vulnerability. In addition, compromised websites and websites that accept or host user-provided content or advertisements could contain specially crafted content that could exploit this vulnerability. In all cases, however, an attacker would have no way to force users to visit these websites. Instead, an attacker would have to convince users to visit the website, typically by getting them to click a link in an email message or Instant Messenger message that takes users to the attacker's website.

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