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5/16/2017
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New Threat Research Shows Vietnam a Rising Force in Cyberespionage

FireEye report on APT32 puts evidence together of a group attacking private and public targets for the sake of Vietnamese state interests.

Forget China and Russia. New evidence out this week suggests that a new font of cyberespionage has woken up from different nation-state source than the usual suspects: Vietnam.

According to research released by FireEye, a patchwork of evidence from three years of disparate malicious activities points to a group that's been focusing its targeted operations to benefit Vietnamese state interests. Putting the pieces together indicates that Vietnam could be a rising player in cyberespionage.

According to FireEye, OceanLotusGroup - or APT32 as FireEye has dubbed the group - since 2014 primarily has been targeting large multinational businesses with interests in Vietnam and headquarters in German, China, the Philippines, the US, the UK, and Vietnam.

"Since at least 2014, FireEye has observed APT32 targeting foreign corporations with a vested interest in Vietnam’s manufacturing, consumer products, and hospitality sectors," writes Nick Carr, senior manager of security consulting and incident response for Mandiant, a FireEye company. "Furthermore, there are indications that APT32 actors are targeting peripheral network security and technology infrastructure corporations, as well as consulting firms that may have connections with foreign investors."

Some of the attacks FireEye investigations are considering potentially coming at the hands of the group include a 2014 compromise of a European corporation prior to constructing a manufacturing facility in Vietnam, plus attacks in 2016 against a global hospitality industry developer with plans to expand into the country and against foreign consumer products corporations.

Most recently in 2017, the group likely compromised the Vietnamese offices of a global consulting firm. Additionally, FireEye believes that APT32 has targeted foreign governments and Vietnamese dissidents and journalists since 2013. This includes an attack that year that was reported on by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against journalists, activists, and dissidents.

At the time, EFF's Eva Galperin and Morgan Marquis-Boire wrote that evidence of Vietnam's cyberespionage goes back even farther than the 2013 attack that used techniques that match APT32's playbook.

"Malware is a tool that most states have their toolbox, and Vietnam is no exception. For the last several years, the communist government of Vietnam has used malware and RATs to spy on journalists, activists, dissidents, and bloggers, while it cracks down on dissent," they wrote. "Vietnam's Internet spying campaign dates back to at least March 2010."

Most recently, FireEye says that playbook has been to use malware that uses ActiveMime files and social engineering to get victims to enable macros in multilingual documents that then initialize downloads of malicious payloads. This is combined with relentless spearphishing attacks against victims to continue to deliver malicious attachments to their systems. To track the efficacy of their phishing efforts they used the same kind of cloud-based email analytics software that corporations use to keep track of marketing campaigns. 

"In some instances, APT32 abandoned direct email attachments altogether and relied exclusively on this tracking technique with links to their ActiveMime lures hosted externally on legitimate cloud storage services," Carr wrote. "To enhance visibility into the further distribution of their phishing lures, APT32 utilized the native web page functionality of their ActiveMime documents to link to external images hosted on APT32 monitored infrastructure."

Once a foothold is established on systems using PowerShell-based tools, APT32 regularly clears select event-log entries and uses the Invoke-Obfuscation framework to hide these tools and signs of their activity. The group goes to great lengths to maintain stealthy persistence. For example, in one case FireEye found that the group compromised the McAfee ePO infrastructure to make it so that victims pulled a malicious payload directly from the ePO server through McAfee's proprietary protocol.

According to FireEye, APT32's signature malware payloads include WINDSHIELD, KOMPROGO, SOUNDBITE, and PHOREAL.

FireEye analysis says all of this infrastructure and activity is likely to carry out a number of political and economic objectives. This includes using longstanding private sector compromises as a platform for law enforcement, intellectual property theft and economic espionage. It also includes threatening political activism and free speech in Vietnam and throughout the Vietnam diaspora worldwide. 

"APT32 demonstrates how accessible and impactful offensive capabilities can be with the proper investment and the flexibility to embrace newly-available tools and techniques," writes Carr. "As more countries utilize inexpensive and efficient cyber operations, there is a need for public awareness of these threats and renewed dialogue around emerging nation-state intrusions that go beyond public sector and intelligence targets."

Related Content:

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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