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Cyber-campaign targeting South East Asia governments uncovered

Palo Alto discovers series of attacks dubbed Operation Lotus Blossom

Over 50 separate attacks have been identified in Operation Lotus Blossom
Over 50 separate attacks have been identified in Operation Lotus Blossom

Palo Alto Networks has uncovered a series of attacks it is dubbing Operation Lotus Blossum, which is said could be state-sponsored cyber-attacks targeting government and military organisations in South East Asia.

Discovered by the Palo Alto Networks Unit 42 threat intelligence team, Operation Lotus Blossom attacks appear to be an attempt to gain inside information on the operation of nation-states throughout the region, the vendor said. The campaign dates as far back as three years and involves targets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Over 50 separate attacks have been identified in Operation Lotus Blossom. They all use a custom-built Trojan, named "Elise" to deliver highly targeted spear phishing emails and gain an initial foothold on targeted systems. Unit 42 believes the Elise malware was developed to specifically meet the unique needs of the operation, but also is being used in other non-related attacks by the adversary.

The attacks, which display the use of custom-built tools, extensive resources, and persistence across multiple years, suggest a well-funded and organised team is behind them. Given these variables and the nature of the targets, Unit 42 believes the motivation for the attacks is cyber espionage and the actors behind them are associated with or sponsored by a nation-state with strong interests in the regional affairs of South East Asia.

"The Trojan backdoor and vulnerability exploits used in Operation Lotus Blossom aren't cutting-edge by today's standards, but these types of attacks can be detrimental if they are successful and give attackers access to sensitive data," said Ryan Olsen, intelligence director, Unit 42, Palo Alto Networks.

"The fact that older vulnerabilities are still being used tells us that until organisations adopt a prevention-based mindset and take steps to improve cyber hygiene, cyber-attackers will continue to use legacy methods because they still work well."

Saeed Agha, General Manager, Palo Alto Networks Middle East, said that the Unit 42 team discovered the Lotus Blossom campaign using the recently announced Palo Alto Networks AutoFocus service, which allowed the team's security analysts to correlate and interrogate security events from over 6,000 WildFire subscribers and other threat intelligence sources.

These attacks are automatically prevented for all Palo Alto Networks Threat Prevention and WildFire subscribers. Others are encouraged to check their networks for signs of intrusion and add relevant indicators to their security controls.