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While some APT groups have been avoiding the use of custom malware and adopting off-the-shelf tools to minimise suspicion and attribution of attacks, still there are prominent groups that continue to invest heavily in developing and refining custom backdoors, as well as hunting for zero-days.

The APT group responsible for the attack on one of the polyclinics of the Presidential Administration of Russia is a case in point. The attackers exploited a previously unknown and unpatched vulnerability in Adobe Flash (CVE-2018-15982) to deliver a customised backdoor with self-destruction capabilities. In addition, the MuddyWater APT group has been developing new variants of its customised backdoor dubbed POWERSTATS and using them alongside open-source tools such as LaZagne and Crackmapexec.

The use of customised malware and zero-days may not be the most effective way to compromise victims, but the flexibility to incorporate unique capabilities that threat actors envision and the potential delay of detecting and patching zero-days are alluring factors. The average time between the initial private discovery and public disclosure of zero-days vary around 6.9 years, according to RAND research. This extensive period gives threat actors prolonged time to perform highly-targeted and strategic espionage attacks to maximise theft of valuable data and funds.

[1] Operation Poison Needles - APT Group Attacked the Polyclinic of the Presidential Administration of Russia, Exploiting a Zero-day
[2] Seedworm: Group Compromises Government Agencies, Oil & Gas, NGOs, Telecoms, and IT Firms
[3] RAND Study Examines 200 Real-World 'Zero-Day' Software Vulnerabilities

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