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26 May 2016 | Peter Stöckli

RUAG APT report published by government agency


The Swiss governmental computer emergency response team ( has published a detailed technical report about the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) that targeted RUAG. RUAG, best-known for RUAG Defence is originally a spin-off of the Swiss army and is fully owned by the Swiss state. Remarkable and applaudable is the fact that it was decided to share this kind of information. The motivation of the GovCERT is explained in the conclusion:

"[..] One of the most effective countermeasures from a victim’s perspective is the sharing of information about such attacks with other organizations, also crossing national borders. This is why we decided to write a public report about this incident, and this is why we strongly believe to share as much information as possible. If this done by any affected party, the price for the attacker raises, as he risks to be detected in every network he attacked in different countries. [..]"


The attack that lasted from an unknown date (assumed in 2014) to the the 3rd May of 2016 is introduced like this:

"The cyber attack is related to a long running campaign of the threat actor around Epic/Turla/Tavdig. The actor has not only infiltrated many governmental organizations in Europe, but also commercial companies in the private sector in the past decade. RUAG has been affected by this threat since at least September 2014. The actor group used malware that does not encompass any root kit technologies (even though the attackers have rootkits within their malware arsenal). An interesting part is the lateral movement, which has been done with a lot of patience. [..]"

The report goes into technical details and reveals interesting details of the inner workings and communication channels of the observed malware. The researches that disassembled the binaries analyzed the encryption algorithms and communication methods used.

E. g. According to page 20 of the report the malware asymmetrically encrypted the stolen data, encoded it with Base64 and put it into a server response like this:

        <title>Authentication Required</title>

This seems like a fairly uncharacteristically move for a host that does normally not act as a web server and should be detectable for an Application Firewall.


The report makes some generic recommendations that should help companies to prevent such attacks or at least reduce their impact and improve the forensic readiness in case something happens. Some of those countermeasure recommendations on the system level are:

  • Consider using Applocker, a technique from Microsoft, which allows you to decide, based on GPOs (Group Policy Objects), which binaries are allowed to be executed, and under which paths. [..]
  • Reduce the privileges a user has when surfing the web or doing normal office tasks. High privileges may only be used when doing system administration tasks.
  • This actor, as well as many other actor groups, relies on the usage of “normal” tools for their lateral movement. The usage of such tools can be monitored. E.g. the start of a tool such as psexec.exe or dsquery.exe from within a normal user context should raise an alarm.
  • Keep your systems up-to-date and reduce their attack surface as much as possible (e.g.: Do you really need to have Flash deployed on every system?)
  • Use write blockers and write protection software for your USB/Firewire devices, or even disable them for all client devices
  • Block the execution of macros, or require signed macros

Side note: On the 19th of April 2016 Casey Smith disclosed an AppLocker Bypass that instruments regsvr32 to execute remote scripts.

Other areas of recommendations concern the Active Directory, the network, logging, system management and organizational aspects. Most of the recommendations sound straightforward and should already be in place in similar manner in secure environments of bigger companies. Interestingly the report does not reference ISO 27001, ISO 27002 or any other standards in the information security field, while its generic recommendations would align very well. Most likely the main focus of the authors was to give practical tips free of management lingo, reaching a broad, heterogeneous audience.

In general, the work that went into creating and publishing this report is appreciated and will hopefully have an impact.