A recent campaign shows that the politically motivated threat actor has more tricks up its sleeve than previously known, targeting an old RCE flaw and wiping logs to cover their tracks.

4 Min Read
chinese flag against computer circuitry backdrop
Source: vectorsector vis Shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was updated on 7/3/2023 to clarify that CVE-2021-40539 was patched in September 2021.

The recently discovered Chinese state-backed advanced persistent threat (APT) "Volt Typhoon," aka "Vanguard Panda," has been spotted using a two-year old critical vulnerability in Zoho's ManageEngine ADSelfService Plus, a single sign-on and password management solution. And it's now sporting plenty of previously undisclosed stealth mechanisms.

Volt Typhoon came to the fore last month, thanks to joint reports from Microsoft and various government agencies. The reports highlighted the group's infection of critical infrastructure in the Pacific region, to be used as a possible future beachhead in the event of conflict with Taiwan.

The reports detailed a number of Volt Typhoon's tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), including its use of internet-exposed Fortinet FortiGuard devices for initial intrusion, and the hiding of network activity via compromised routers, firewalls, and VPN hardware.

But a recent campaign outlined by CrowdStrike in a recent blog post suggests that Volt Typhoon is flexible, with the ability to customize its tactics based on data gathered through extensive reconnaissance. In this case, the group utilized CVE-2021-40539 in ManageEngine for intrusion, then masked its Web shell as a legitimate process and erased logs as it went along.

These previously unknown tactics enabled "pervasive access to the victim's environment for an extended period," says Tom Etheridge, chief global professional services officer for CrowdStrike, which didn't reveal details on the victim's location or profile. "They were familiar with the infrastructure that the customer had, and they were diligent about cleaning up their tracks."

Volt Typhoon's Evolving Cyber Tactics

CrowdStrike researchers' spidey senses tingled when suspicious activity seemed to be emanating from its unidentified client's network.

The then-unrecognized entity appeared to be performing extensive information-gathering — testing network connectivity, listing processes, gathering user information, and much more. It "indicated a familiarity with the target environment, due to the rapid succession of their commands, as well as having specific internal hostnames and IPs to ping, remote shares to mount, and plaintext credentials to use for [Windows Management Instrumentation]," the researchers wrote in their blog post.

It turned out, after some investigating, that the attacker — Volt Typhoon — had deployed a Web shell to the network a whole six months prior. How did it go unnoticed for so long?

The story began with CVE-2021-40539, a critical (9.8 CVSS score) remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability in ADSelfService Plus, discovered and patched back in Sept. 2021. ManageEngine software, and ADSelfService Plus in particular, has been critically exposed on a number of occasions in recent years (CVE-2021-40539 isn't even its most recent critical 9.8 CVSS RCE vulnerability — that title goes to CVE-2022-47966).

With initial access, the attackers were able to drop a Web shell. Here was where the more interesting stealth began, as the researchers observed "the Web shell was attempting to masquerade as a legitimate file of ManageEngine ADSelfService Plus by setting its title to ManageEngine ADSelfService Plus and adding links to legitimate enterprise help desk software."

The group proceeded to siphon administrator credentials and move laterally in the network. It took a cruder, manual approach to covering its tracks this time around, going to "extensive lengths to clear out multiple log files and remove excess files from disk," the researchers explained.

The evidence tampering was extensive, nearly eliminating all traces of malicious activity. However, the attackers forgot to erase the Java source code and compiled Class files from their targeted Apache Tomcat Web server.

"If it wasn't for that slight slip up that was reported in the blog, they probably would have gone unnoticed," Etheridge says.

How to Defend Against Volt Typhoon Cyberattacks

Thus far, Volt Typhoon has been observed targeting organizations in the communications, manufacturing, utility, transportation, construction, maritime, government, information technology, and education sectors. It's most notable, however, for seeking out critical infrastructure in the United States and Guam — a strategic point of American defense of Taiwan against China.

According to Etheridge, some of the same principles in this case study could be equally applied to a critical infrastructure breach. "Operational technology (OT)-type environments are typically targeted through IT infrastructure first, before the threat actor moves to the infrastructure," he points out. "Certainly the tactics that we see them deploying would be concerning from a critical infrastructure perspective."

To meet the threat of Volt Typhoon, Etheridge says, one major point is identity management.

"Identity is a huge challenge for a lot of organizations. We've seen a huge uptick in advertisements for stolen credentials, and stolen credentials are leveraged quite extensively in the incidents that we respond to each and every day," he says. In this case, being able to leverage stolen credentials was key to Volt Typhoon's remaining under the radar for so many months.

Etheridge also emphasizes the importance of threat hunting and incident response. Nation-state threat actors are notoriously impossible to stop entirely, but organizations will be better prepared to mitigate the worst possible consequences, he says, if they're able "to understand when something is going on in your environment, and being able to take corrective action quickly."

About the Author(s)

Nate Nelson, Contributing Writer

Nate Nelson is a freelance writer based in New York City. Formerly a reporter at Threatpost, he contributes to a number of cybersecurity blogs and podcasts. He writes "Malicious Life" -- an award-winning Top 20 tech podcast on Apple and Spotify -- and hosts every other episode, featuring interviews with leading voices in security. He also co-hosts "The Industrial Security Podcast," the most popular show in its field.

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