Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


05:15 PM
Connect Directly

Facebook Reports China-Linked Cyberattack Targeting Uyghurs

Facebook has removed accounts used to send malicious links to Uyghur people with the goal of infecting their devices.

Facebook today shared the details of an attack campaign that used its platform as part of a broader operation to spy on Uyghur Muslim journalists, activists, and dissidents around the world. Officials say a Chinese group is responsible for the advanced attack.

Related Content:

Prioritizing Application & API Security After the COVID Cloud Rush

Special Report: Building an Effective Cybersecurity Incident Response Team

New From The Edge: Cartoon Caption Winner: In Hot Water

This group used Facebook to create fake accounts, which have now been removed, and distribute links to malicious websites and iOS and Android malware. Attackers used the social platform to target Uyghurs from Xinjiang, China, who now live in the United States, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Syria, Australia, Canada, and other countries, the company reports. 

News of the attack arrives the same week that the US, Canada, European Union, and United Kingdom imposed sanctions against Chinese officials for "serious human rights abuses" against Uyghur Muslims, who have been the targets of mass detention in China.

This campaign started in 2019 and affected at least 500 targets; however, Facebook says this only accounts for parts of the attack that somehow touched the platform. Most of the attack activity did not, says Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy for Facebook. 

Attackers built malicious third-party websites that used lookalike domains for popular Uyghur and Turkish news websites; they also seem to have compromised legitimate sites that Uyghurs visit as part of watering-hole attacks. Some sites held malicious code similar to previously reported exploits that installed Insomnia iOS malware on devices. 

To distribute these malicious links, the attackers used fake Facebook accounts to pose as reporters, students, human rights advocates, and other Uyghur community members to establish trust with their victims and trick them into clicking on the malicious links.

The group was careful to hide their activity by only deploying the iOS malware when a target met specific technical criteria, such as IP address, operating system, browser, and country and language settings, says Mike Dvilyanski, Facebook's head of cyber-espionage investigations. This activity was highly targeted and designed to collect people's data.

Facebook also found websites designed to resemble third-party Android app stores, where attackers put fake apps that might appeal to Uyghur targets. These included a keyboard app, prayer app, and dictionary app, all of which contained the ActionSpy or PluginPhantom Android malware strains.

Analysis revealed two Chinese companies, Beijing Best United Technology and Dalian 9Rush Technology, are behind some of the Android tools. Facebook notes FireEye research contributed to their assessment.

"FireEye uncovered an operation targeting the Uyghur community and other Chinese speakers through malicious mobile applications that were designed to collect extensive personal information from victims, including GPS location, SMS, contacts lists, screenshots, audio, and keystrokes," says Ben Read, director of analysis for Mandiant Threat Intelligence, in a statement, noting the operation FireEye has been following has been active since 2019.

Facebook did not directly attribute this attack to the Chinese government. While it can see the geographic attribution, officials say, it can't prove who is behind the operation. 

"Our industry peers have been tracking parts of this activity as being driven by a single threat actor broadly known as Earth Empusa, or Evil Eye, or PoisonCarp," Gleicher and Dvilyanski write in a blog post on the attack. Facebook's investigation has confirmed the activity it has disrupted so far closely aligns with the first two. While PoisonCarp shares some of the techniques, its analysis shows this is a separate cluster of activity.

Facebook has blocked the sharing of these malicious domains on its platform, removed the attack group's fake accounts, and notified people believed to be targeted. It's sharing its findings today to expand disruption efforts, as it expects attacks to continue. 

"We saw this activity slow down at various times, likely in response to our and other companies' actions to disrupt their activity," the post states.

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
Cyberattacks Are Tailored to Employees ... Why Isn't Security Training?
Tim Sadler, CEO and co-founder of Tessian,  6/17/2021
7 Powerful Cybersecurity Skills the Energy Sector Needs Most
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer,  6/22/2021
Microsoft Disrupts Large-Scale BEC Campaign Across Web Services
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  6/15/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
The State of Cybersecurity Incident Response
In this report learn how enterprises are building their incident response teams and processes, how they research potential compromises, how they respond to new breaches, and what tools and processes they use to remediate problems and improve their cyber defenses for the future.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-23
A cross site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in Catfish CMS 4.9.90 allows attackers to execute arbitrary web scripts or HTML via a crafted payload entered into the "announcement_gonggao" parameter.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-23
Cross Site Scripting (XSS) vulnerability in GetSimpleCMS <= 3.3.15 in admin/changedata.php via the redirect_url parameter and the headers_sent function.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-23
Cross Site Scriptiong (XSS) vulnerability in GetSimpleCMS <=3.3.15 via the timezone parameter to settings.php.
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-23
Cross Site Scripting vulnerability in GetSimpleCMS <=3.3.15 via the (1) sitename, (2) username, and (3) email parameters to /admin/setup.php
PUBLISHED: 2021-06-23
Report portal is an open source reporting and analysis framework. Starting from version 3.1.0 of the service-api XML parsing was introduced. Unfortunately the XML parser was not configured properly to prevent XML external entity (XXE) attacks. This allows a user to import a specifically-crafted XML ...