An unknown number of managed service providers and their customers are victims of a massive, global cyber espionage campaign by a China-based threat actor that this week was also fingered in another attack against a U.S. group involved in lobbying around foreign trade policy.
News of the campaigns coincides with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the U.S. to meet with President Trump. It suggests that cyber-enabled espionage out of China continues to be an issue, despite a September 2015 agreement between the U.S and Chinese governments not to support or engage in such activities.
“Even as IP-focused cyber-espionage has reduced since the Xi Jinping-Obama agreement, big business will continue to be targeted, if nothing else than for the influence they hold over governments,” warns Hardik Modi, vice president of threat research at Fidelis Cybersecurity.
Fidelis was one of the organizations that this week disclosed new cyber espionage activity by APT10, a well-known China-based advanced threat group that is also known as Stone Panda. The other warning about the APT10 group's resurgent activity, after a period of relative quiet, came from PwC UK and BAE Systems.
'TradeSecret' campaign against National Foreign Trade Council
The Fidelis report involves "TradeSecret," the company’s name for a targeted and strategic campaign directed at the website of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a trade lobby group representing some of America’s largest companies.
According to Fidelis, its security researchers in February discovered a reconnaissance tool called "Scanbox," previously associated with China government-sponsored threat actors, embedded on specific pages of the NFTC site. Among the infected page were those that NFTC board members used to register for meetings.
The malware was configured to infect the systems of anyone that visited the pages and to collect credential and session information and also system-level data that could later be used in phishing attacks or for exploiting specific vulnerabilities. It’s unclear how the APT10 group initially breached the site in order to embed Scanbox on it.
NFTC members have been major contributors to the dialogue around the new U.S. trade policy framework being developed by the Trump Administration. It is highly likely the APT10 group will use data that Scanbox collected to craft targeted attacks against them.
'Cloud Hopper' campaign against MSPs
Meanwhile, in a separate advisory, PwC and BAE Systems warned about a systematic and widespread APT10 campaign they have dubbed "Cloud Hopper" to steal data from an unknown, but most likely large, number of organizations.
What makes the campaign scary and highly scalable, according to the two organizations, is the APT10 group’s tactic to target companies via their managed service providers, rather than directly.
Multiple MSPs have been hit since late 2016 and their infrastructure has been used to gain access to the networks of their customers. Typical attacks have involved APT10 gaining access to a MSP network, looking for customers that match its interests, and then breaking into their networks using the MSP’s legitimate access.
The China-based group has then been extracting data from the victim’s network, putting the data into compressed files, sending it back to the MSP network and from there to servers controlled by APT10.
The investigations by BAE and PwC show that the campaign is focused on extracting intellectual property and other sensitive data from organizations. “APT10 is known to have exfiltrated a high volume of data from multiple victims, exploiting compromised MSP networks, and those of their customers, to stealthily move this data around the world,” the two companies said in their report.
The Cloud Hopper campaign is a classic example of the evolution of third-party cyber risk, says Fred Kneip, CEO, CyberGRX. It takes advantage of the implicit trust that many organizations place on their cloud service providers and other third parties that they do business with.
“Although attacks via third parties are the second biggest source of security incidents, most organizations do not have a consistent process to help them understand which partners pose the most risk to their organization,” Kneip says. Organizations need to truly understand their residual risk from each third party, and perform their own validation of key controls as opposed to relying on self-assessments, he says.
“Customers need to ask relevant questions of their provider as to how they achieve customer segmentation and segregation,” advises Jim Reavis, executive director of the Cloud Security Alliance. “Customers also need to understand their own responsibilities and in many cases it is their job to add data protection controls like encryption or to use the provider's logging capabilities to monitor access to their own cloud instances.”
Meanwhile, campaigns such as Cloud Hopper also highlight the need for cloud service providers to perform segmentation at multiple levels, including networks, users, applications and data, to mitigate the fallout from a data breach, Reavis says. “No company can prevent all breaches, but systems should be designed so that a single breach impacts a maximum of one customer.”
John Pescatore, director of emerging threats at the SANS Institute said that attacks targeting cloud service providers are nothing new. Edward Snowden’s leaks showed the US government was targeting IT service providers as far back as 2013. And attacks on Google and others in subsequent years have shown that Chinese threat actors have been doing the same for some time now, he says.
“The bigger suppliers are pretty good at protecting themselves, but they are rarely the low cost providers,” Pescatore says. “All too often obtaining [specific security] certifications are all the lower cost providers have to show in order to win competitions,” he says. “There has been talk in the IT service provider industry association of raising the bar, like has been done in the UK, but not much movement forward.”
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio