September 28, 2021

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Hard Pass: Declining APT34’s Invite to Join Their Professional Network

Hard Pass: Declining APT34’s Invite to Join Their Professional Network


With increasing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, we expect
Iran to significantly increase the volume and scope of its cyber
espionage campaigns. Iran has a critical need for strategic
intelligence and is likely to fill this gap by conducting espionage
against decision makers and key organizations that may have
information that furthers Iran’s economic and national security goals.
The identification of new malware and the creation of additional
infrastructure to enable such campaigns highlights the increased tempo
of these operations in support of Iranian interests.

FireEye Identifies Phishing Campaign

In late June 2019, FireEye identified a phishing campaign conducted
by APT34, an Iranian-nexus threat actor. Three key attributes caught
our eye with this particular campaign:

  1. Masquerading as a member of Cambridge University to gain
    victims’ trust to open malicious documents,
  2. The usage of
    LinkedIn to deliver malicious documents,
  3. The addition of
    three new malware families to APT34’s arsenal.

FireEye’s platform successfully thwarted this attempted intrusion,
stopping a new malware variant dead in its tracks. Additionally, with
the assistance of our FireEye Labs Advanced Reverse Engineering
(FLARE), Intelligence, and Advanced Practices teams, we identified
three new malware families and a reappearance of PICKPOCKET, malware
exclusively observed in use by APT34. The new malware families, which
we will examine later in this post, show APT34 relying on their
PowerShell development capabilities, as well as trying their hand at Golang.

APT34 is an Iran-nexus cluster of cyber espionage activity that has
been active since at least 2014. They use a mix of public and
non-public tools to collect strategic information that would benefit
nation-state interests pertaining to geopolitical and economic needs.
APT34 aligns with elements of activity reported as OilRig and
Greenbug, by various security researchers. This threat group has
conducted broad targeting across a variety of industries operating in
the Middle East; however, we believe APT34’s strongest interest is
gaining access to financial, energy, and government entities.

Additional research on APT34 can be found in this FireEye
blog post
, this CERT-OPMD
, and this Cisco post.

Mandiant Managed
also initiated a Community Protection Event (CPE) titled
“Geopolitical Spotlight: Iran.” This CPE was created to ensure our
customers are updated with new discoveries, activity and detection
efforts related to this campaign, along with other recent activity
from Iranian-nexus threat actors to include APT33, which is mentioned
in this updated
FireEye blog post

Industries Targeted

The activities observed by Managed Defense, and described in this
post, were primarily targeting the following industries:

  • Energy and Utilities
  • Government
  • Oil and

Utilizing Cambridge University to Establish Trust

On June 19, 2019, Mandiant Managed Defense Security Operations
Center received an exploit detection alert on one of our FireEye
Endpoint Security appliances. The offending application was identified
as Microsoft Excel and was stopped immediately by FireEye Endpoint
Security’s ExploitGuard engine. ExploitGuard is our behavioral
monitoring, detection, and prevention capability that monitors
application behavior, looking for various anomalies that threat actors
use to subvert traditional detection mechanisms. Offending
applications can subsequently be sandboxed or terminated, preventing
an exploit from reaching its next programmed step.

The Managed Defense SOC analyzed the alert and identified a
malicious file named System.doc (MD5:
, located in C:Users<user_name>.templates. The file
System.doc is a Windows Portable
Executable (PE), despite having a “doc” file extension. FireEye identified
this new malware family as TONEDEAF.

A backdoor that communicates with a single command and control (C2)
server using HTTP GET and POST requests, TONEDEAF supports collecting
system information, uploading and downloading of files, and arbitrary
shell command execution. When executed, this variant of TONEDEAF wrote
encrypted data to two temporary files – temp.txt and temp2.txt
within the same directory of its execution. We explore additional
technical details of TONEDEAF in the malware appendix of this post.

Retracing the steps preceding exploit detection, FireEye identified
that System.doc was dropped by a file named
ERFT-Details.xls. Combining endpoint- and
network-visibility, we were able to correlate that ERFT-Details.xls originated from the URL[.]com/Documents/ERFT-Details.xls.
Network evidence also showed the access of a LinkedIn message directly
preceding the spreadsheet download.

Managed Defense reached out to the impacted customer’s security
team, who confirmed the file was received via a LinkedIn message. The
targeted employee conversed with “Rebecca Watts”, allegedly
employed as “Research Staff at University of Cambridge”. The
conversation with Ms. Watts, provided in Figure 1, began with the
solicitation of resumes for potential job opportunities.

Figure 1: Screenshot of LinkedIn message
asking to download TONEDEAF

This is not the first time we’ve seen APT34 utilize academia and/or
job offer conversations in their various campaigns. These
conversations often take place on social media platforms, which can be
an effective delivery mechanism if a targeted organization is focusing
heavily on e-mail defenses to prevent intrusions.

FireEye examined the original file ERFT-Details.xls, which was observed with at least
two unique MD5 file hashes:

  • 96feed478c347d4b95a8224de26a1b2c
  • caf418cbf6a9c4e93e79d4714d5d3b87

A snippet of the VBA code, provided in Figure 2, creates System.doc in the target directory from
base64-encoded text upon opening.

Figure 2: Screenshot of VBA code from System.doc

The spreadsheet also creates a scheduled task named “windows update check” that runs the
file C:Users<user_name>.templatesSystem
every minute. Upon closing the spreadsheet, a final
VBA function will rename System.doc to System Manager.exe. Figure 3 provides a snippet
of VBA code that creates the scheduled task, clearly obfuscated to
avoid simple detection.

Figure 3: Additional VBA code from System.doc

Upon first execution of TONEDEAF, FireEye identified a callback to
the C2 server offlineearthquake[.]com over
port 80.

The FireEye Footprint: Pivots and Victim Identification

After identifying the usage of offlineearthquake[.]com as a potential C2 domain,
FireEye’s Intelligence and Advanced Practices teams performed a wider
search across our global visibility. FireEye’s Advanced Practices and
Intelligence teams were able to identify additional artifacts and
activity from the APT34 actors at other victim organizations. Of note,
FireEye discovered two additional new malware families hosted at this
domain, VALUEVAULT and LONGWATCH. We also identified a variant of
PICKPOCKET, a browser credential-theft tool FireEye has been tracking
since May 2018, hosted on the C2.

Requests to the domain offlineearthquake[.]com could take multiple forms,
depending on the malware’s stage of installation and purpose.
Additionally, during installation, the malware retrieves the system
and current user names, which are used to create a three-character
“sys_id”. This value is used in subsequent requests, likely to track
infected target activity. URLs were observed with the following structures:

  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/download?id=<sys_id>&n=000
  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/upload?id=<sys_id>&n=000
  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/file/<sys_id>/<executable>?id=<cmd_id>&h=000
  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/file/<sys_id>/<executable>?id=<cmd_id>&n=000

The first executable identified by FireEye on the C2 was WinNTProgram.exe (MD5:
, identified by FireEye as
LONGWATCH. LONGWATCH is a keylogger that outputs keystrokes to a log.txt file in the Window’s temp folder. Further
information regarding LONGWATCH is detailed in the Malware Appendix
section at the end of the post.

FireEye Network Security appliances also detected the following
being retrieved from APT34 infrastructure (Figure 4).

User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0)

AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko)
Proxy-Connection: Keep-Alive
Pragma: no-cache HTTP/1.1

Figure 4: Snippet of HTTP traffic retrieving
VALUEVAULT; detected by FireEye Network Security appliance

FireEye identifies b.exe (MD5:

VALUEVAULT is a Golang compiled version of the “Windows Vault
Password Dumper” browser credential theft tool from Massimiliano
Montoro, the developer of Cain & Abel.

VALUEVAULT maintains the same functionality as the original tool by
allowing the operator to extract and view the credentials stored in
the Windows Vault. Additionally, VALUEVAULT will call Windows
PowerShell to extract browser history in order to match browser
passwords with visited sites. Further information regarding VALUEVAULT
can be found in the appendix below.

Further pivoting from FireEye appliances and internal data sources
yielded two additional files, PE86.dll (MD5:
and PE64.dll (MD5:
. These files were analyzed
and determined to be 64- and 32-bit variants of the malware
PICKPOCKET, respectively.

PICKPOCKET is a credential theft tool that dumps the user’s website
login credentials from Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer to a
file. This tool was previously observed during a Mandiant incident
response in 2018 and, to date, solely utilized by APT34.


The activity described in this blog post presented a well-known
Iranian threat actor utilizing their tried-and-true techniques to
breach targeted organizations. Luckily, with FireEye’s platform in
place, our Managed Defense customers were not impacted. Furthermore,
upon the blocking of this activity, FireEye was able to expand upon
the observed indicators to identify a broader campaign, as well as the
use of new and old malware.

We suspect this will not be the last time APT34 brings new tools to
the table. Threat actors are often reshaping their TTPs to evade
detection mechanisms, especially if the target is highly desired. For
these reasons, we recommend organizations remain vigilant in their
defenses, and remember to view their environment holistically when it
comes to information security.

Learn more about Mandiant
Managed Defense
, and catch an on-demand recap on this and the Top 5 Managed
Defense attacks
this year.

Malware Appendix


TONEDEAF is a backdoor that communicates with Command and Control
servers using HTTP or DNS. Supported commands include system
information collection, file upload, file download, and arbitrary
shell command execution. Although this backdoor was coded to be able
to communicate with DNS requests to the hard-coded Command and Control
server, c[.]cdn-edge-akamai[.]com, it was not configured to use this
functionality. Figure 5 provides a snippet of the assembly CALL
instruction of dns_exfil. The creator likely made this as a means for
future DNS exfiltration as a plan B.

Figure 5: Snippet of code from TONEDEAF binary

Aside from not being enabled in this sample, the DNS tunneling
functionality also contains missing values and bugs that prevent it
from executing properly. One such bug involves determining the length
of a command response string without accounting for Unicode strings.
As a result, a single command response byte is sent when, for example,
the malware executes a shell command that returns Unicode output.
Additionally, within the malware, an unused string contained the
address 185[.]15[.]247[.]154.


VALUEVAULT is a Golang compiled version of the “Windows Vault
Password Dumper” browser credential theft tool from Massimiliano
Montoro, the developer of Cain & Abel.

VALUEVAULT maintains the same functionality as the original tool by
allowing the operator to extract and view the credentials stored in
the Windows Vault. Additionally, VALUEVAULT will call Windows
PowerShell to extract browser history in order to match browser
passwords with visited sites. A snippet of this function is shown in
Figure 6.

powershell.exe /c “function
get-iehistory {. [CmdletBinding()]. param (). . $shell =
New-Object -ComObject Shell.Application. $hist =
$shell.NameSpace(34). $folder = $hist.Self. . $hist.Items()
| . foreach {. if ($_.IsFolder) {. $siteFolder =
$_.GetFolder. $siteFolder.Items() | . foreach {. $site = $_.
. if ($site.IsFolder) {. $pageFolder = $site.GetFolder.
$pageFolder.Items() | . foreach {. $visit = New-Object
-TypeName PSObject -Property @{ . URL =
$($pageFolder.GetDetailsOf($_,0)) . }. $visit. }. }. }. }.
}. }. get-iehistory

Figure 6: Snippet of PowerShell code from
VALUEVAULT to extract browser credentials

Upon execution, VALUEVAULT creates a SQLITE database file in the
AppDataRoaming directory under the
context of the user account it was executed by. This file is named
fsociety.dat and VALUEVAULT will write the
dumped passwords to this in SQL format. This functionality is not in
the original version of the “Windows Vault Password Dumper”. Figure 7
shows the SQL format of the fsociety.dat file.

Figure 7: SQL format of the VALUEVAULT
fsociety.dat SQLite database

VALUEVAULT’s function names are not obfuscated and are directly
reviewable in strings analysis. Other developer environment variables
were directly available within the binary as shown below. VALUEVAULT
does not possess the ability to perform network communication, meaning
the operators would need to manually retrieve the captured output of
the tool.

Password Recovery.go

Figure 8: Golang files extracted during
execution of VALUEVAULT


FireEye identified the binary WinNTProgram.exe
hosted on the malicious
domain offlineearthquake[.]com. FireEye
identifies this malware as LONGWATCH. The primary function of
LONGWATCH is a keylogger that outputs keystrokes to a log.txt file in the Windows temp folder.

Interesting strings identified in the binary are shown in Figure 9.

[PRINT SCREEN] (1 space)
>>>  (2 spaces)

Figure 9: Strings identified in a LONGWATCH binary

Detecting the Techniques

FireEye detects this activity across our platforms, including named
detection for TONEDEAF, VALUEVAULT, and LONGWATCH. Table 2
contains several specific detection names that provide an indication
of APT34 activity.

Signature Name










Table 1: FireEye Platform Detections

Endpoint Indicators


MD5 Hash (if applicable)

Code Family

























Table 2: APT34 Endpoint Indicators from this
blog post

Network Indicators






A huge thanks to Delyan Vasilev and Alex Lanstein for their efforts
in detecting, analyzing and classifying this APT34 campaign. Thanks
to Matt Williams, Carlos Garcia and Matt Haigh from the FLARE team for
the in-depth malware analysis.