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Chinese Threat Actor Abused ESXi Zero-Day to Pilfer Files From Guest VMs

Mandiant's ongoing investigation of UNC3886 has uncovered new details of threat actors' TTPs.

4 Min Read
hand touching  VIRTUALIZATION SECURITY on a touch screen interface
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A Chinese cyber-espionage group that researchers previously have spotted targeting VMware ESXi hosts has quietly been exploiting a zero-day authentication bypass flaw in the virtualization technology to execute privileged commands on guest virtual machines (VMs).

Researchers from Mandiant discovered the vulnerability during ongoing investigations of UNC3886, a Chinese threat actor they have been following for some time and whom they reported on last year. They disclosed the vulnerability to VMware, which released a patch addressing the flaw on Tuesday.

Authentication Bypass Zero-Day

The zero-day vulnerability (CVE-2023-208670) is present in VMware Tools, a set of services and modules for enhanced management of guest operating systems.

The bug gives attackers a way to use a compromised ESXi host to transfer files to and from Windows, Linux, and vCenter guest virtual machines without the need for guest credentials — and without any default logging of the activity happening. VMware assessed the flaw as being of medium severity because to exploit it an attacker already needs to have root access over an ESXi host.

Mandiant found UNC3886 using CVE-2023-208670 as part of a larger and sophisticated attack chain that its researchers have been unraveling over the past several months.

In September 2022, Mandiant reported uncovering UNC3886 using poisoned vSphere Installation Bundles, or VIBs, to install multiple backdoors — collectively dubbed VirtualPITA and VirtualPIE — on ESXi hypervisors. The backdoors enabled the attackers to maintain persistent administrative access to the hypervisor, to route commands through the hypervisor for execution on guest VMs, and for transferring files between the hypervisor and guest machines. The malware bundle also allowed UNC3886 actor to tamper with the hypervisor's logging service and to execute arbitrary commend between guest VMs on the same hypervisor.

Mandiant's analysis at the time showed the threat actor required admin-level privileges on the ESXi hypervisor to deploy the backdoors. But it found no evidence of UNC3886 actors leveraging any zero-day vulnerability to break into the ESXi environment or to deploy the weaponized VIBs.

New Details on Threat Actor's Tactics and Methods

The security vendor's continuing investigation of UNC3886's campaign — summarized in a technical report this week — uncovered new details on the threat actor's tactics and methods. They found, for instance, the threat actor harvesting credentials for connected ESXi service accounts from vCenter Server appliance and exploiting CVE-2023-20867 to execute privileged commands across guest virtual machines. Mandiant's research also showed UNC3886 actors deploying backdoors — including VirtualPITA and another called VirtualGATE — using the Virtual Machine Communication Interface (VMCI) socket for lateral movement and additional persistence. "This … enabled direct reconnection from any guest VM to the compromised ESXi host’s backdoor regardless of network segmentation or firewall rules in place," Mandiant said.

Mandiant's report this week goes into the technical details on the entire attack chain beginning with the threat actor gaining privileged access to an organization's vCenter server and retrieving service account credentials for all connected ESXi hosts. The report goes on to describe how UNC3886 actors used the credentials to connect to ESXi hosts, deploy VirtualPITA and VirtualPIE backdoors on them using VIBs and then exploiting CVE-2023-208670 to execute commands for transferring files to and from guess VMs.

The threat actor targeted ESXi hosts belonging to defense, technology and telecommunications companies, Mandiant said.

"To enable connections to many ESXi hosts at once, UNC3886 targeted vCenter servers, each [of which] administrate multiple ESXi hosts," says Alex Marvi, a consultant at Google Cloud's Mandiant. "Each ESXi host creates a service account called the 'vpxuser' when it is initially connected to a vCenter server. UNC3886 was seen harvesting this vpxuser account on vCenter servers so they could connect with administrative rights to all connected ESXi hosts." Once connected to the ESXi hosts, the threat actor leveraged CVE-2023-20867 to run commands and transfer files on running guest machines without the need for the guest’s credentials, he says.

Previously Unseen Techniques

The harvesting of connected ESXi service account credentials on vCenter servers and the capabilities of the VMCI socket backdoor are two new techniques that Mandiant has not seen utilized by other attackers in the past, Marvi says. "This should help organizations detect and respond to this attack path, regardless of the exact malware being deployed or commands being used."

Mandiant has assessed UNC3886 as a threat actor that is particularly adept at targeting and exploiting zero-day bugs in firewall and virtualization technologies that do not support endpoint detection and response technologies. Its primary targets have been in the US and on organizations in the Asia-Pacific region and Japan. According to Marvi, UNC3886 has demonstrated the ability to switch up attacker paths and tactics when needed. He points to a novel set of malware tools the threat actor deployed on Fortinet devices as evidence of its abilities and access to resources needed to carry out highly sophisticated attacks.

"UNC3886 has shown itself to be a flexible, yet highly capable threat actor, which will modify open source projects to complete their mission," he says. "I would argue that this group’s TTPs are more dynamic than unique, built around the exact needs to either regain access or persist in an environment with whatever they are given access to."

About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

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 career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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