Winnti APT group uses skip-2.0 malware to control Microsoft SQL Servers

Security experts have a new malware, dubbed skip-2.0 used by the China-linked APT group to establish a backdoor in Microsoft SQL Server systems.

Security experts at ESET have discovered a new malware, dubbed skip-2.0, used by the Chinese Winnti cyberespionage group to gain persistence on Microsoft SQL Server systems.

The Winnti group was first spotted by Kaspersky in 2013, according to the researchers the gang has been active since 2007.

The experts believe that under the Winnti umbrella there are several APT groups, including  Winnti, Gref, PlayfullDragon, APT17, DeputyDog, Axiom, BARIUM, LEAD, PassCV, Wicked Panda, and ShadowPad.

The skip-2.0 malware was used by threat actors to establish a backdoor in MSSQL Server 11 and 12 servers, allowing them to access to any account on the server using a “magic password.” The malicious code is able to remain under the radar thanks to the ability to interact with logging mechanisms.

“Earlier this year, we received a sample of this new backdoor called skip-2.0 by its authors and part of the Winnti Group’s arsenal.” reads the analysis published by ESET researcher Mathieu Tartare. “This backdoor targets MSSQL Server 11 and 12, allowing the attacker to connect stealthily to any MSSQL account by using a magic password – while automatically hiding these connections from the logs. Such a backdoor could allow an attacker to stealthily copy, modify or delete database content.”

The skip-2.0 backdoor has some similarities with other malware in the Winnti Group’s arsenal, such as the PortReuse and ShadowPad backdoors.

The PortReuse backdoor has a modular architecture, experts discovered that its components are separate processes that communicate through named pipes. Experts detected multiple PortReuse variants with a different NetAgent but using the same SK3. Each variant spotted by the experts was targeting different services and ports, including DNS over TCP (53), HTTP (80), HTTPS (443), Remote Desktop Protocol (3389) and Windows Remote Management (5985).

PortReuse was used by the Winnticyberespionage group to target a high-profile Asian mobile software and hardware manufacturer.

The ShadowPad backdoor is a modular platform that can be used to download and execute arbitrary code on the infected system, create processes, and maintain a virtual file system in the registry,

The remote access capability implemented for the ShadowPad backdoor includes a domain generation algorithm (DGA) for C&C servers which changes every month.

Experts noticed that the three malware use the same VMProtected launcher, the same packer.

The Inner-Loader observed in recent attacks looks for the sqlserv.exe process associated with Microsoft SQL Server, then it injects a payload into this process via the sqllang.dll, giving the malware the ability to hook multiple logging and authentication functions.

“The functions targeted by skip-2.0 are related to authentication and event logging.” continues the analysis.

“The most interesting function is the first one (CPwdPolicyManager::ValidatePwdForLogin), which is responsible for validating the password provided for a given user. This function’s hook checks whether the password provided by the user matches the magic password, in that case, the original function will not be called and the hook will return 0, allowing the connection even though the correct password was not provided.”

Experts pointed out that administrative privileges are required for installing the hooks, this means that skip-2.0 could be delivered only on already compromised MSSQL Servers to achieve persistence.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – Winnti, skip-2.0)

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