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China-Backed RedAlpha APT Builds Sprawling Cyber-Espionage Infrastructure

The state-sponsored group particularly targets organizations working on behalf of the Uyghurs, Tibet, and Taiwan, looking to gather intel that could lead to human-rights abuses, researchers say.

The RedAlpha advanced persistent threat (APT) group, thought to be linked to the Chinese state, has been spying on global humanitarian, think tank, and government organizations thanks to a massive phishing campaign that's been active for years.

That's the word from Recorded Future's the Insikt Group, which also found that the intelligence collection is likely used to support human rights abuses orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

RedAlpha (aka Deepcliff or Red Dev 3) specializes in mass credential-harvesting, which it accomplishes via convincing phishing emails with attached PDFs that lead to purported login pages. The group has been operational at a "high tempo" since at least 2015, Insikt researchers note, though it didn't spark the notice of security researchers until 2018. And since 2019, the activity has ramped up even further, analysts say.

"Over the past three years, we have observed RedAlpha registering and weaponizing hundreds of domains spoofing organizations such as the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Amnesty International, the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), Radio Free Asia (RFA), the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and other … organizations," according to a blog post on Tuesday from Insikt.

Last year, RedAlpha stood up at least 350 domains overall, representing a big spike in its activity, analysts said. In many cases, the observed phishing pages mimicked legitimate email login portals for these specific targets, suggesting the attackers intended to target individuals directly affiliated with the organizations, as opposed to using the branding of the entities to target other third parties.

In particular, the APT has been observed directly targeting ethnic and religious minorities such as the Tibetan and Uyghur communities and protesters such as Falun Gong members, and it has been particularly interested in anything Taiwan-related. In short, the targets align closely with Chinese interests. Thus, the idea is to gain access to email accounts and other online communications of victims, in order to eavesdrop and gather political intel on the targets, researchers surmise.

Casey Ellis, founder and CTO at Bugcrowd, says that the intel gleaned can be weaponized not just for guiding kinetic or physical strikes against the persons of interest but also for counter-messaging meant to undermine their activities.

"China has an enormous population of very astute technologists, a vast security research and hacking community, and a large government-sponsored team with offensive capability ranging from information warfare to targeted exploit development and R&D," he says. "Data stolen for nation-state espionage isn't, for example, likely to be used for fraud if the threat actor is Chinese. The main threat, as is true for most nation-state threat actors, is dis/misinformation, weaponized memes, and subversive propaganda through social networks and traditional media."

The spoofing also has included impersonating well-known email service providers in an effort to look legitimate, including Yahoo (135 typosquatted domains), Google (91 typosquatted domains), and Microsoft (70 typosquatted domains).

"Chinese state-sponsored groups continue to aggressively target dissident and minority groups and individuals, both domestically through state surveillance and internationally through cyber-enabled intrusion activity," the researchers note. "This targeting of sensitive and vulnerable communities, many of which have security budget and resources constraints, is particularly concerning.

Sprawling Phishing Infrastructure

According to Insikt's analysis, the group maintains large clusters of operational infrastructure, beyond the hundreds of phishing domains that imitate and spoof specific organizations.

The researchers say that other consistent characteristics of the group's efforts include the use of *resellerclub[.]com nameservers; using the virtual private server (VPS) hosting provider Virtual Machine Solutions (VirMach); similar domain-naming conventions, such as the use of “mydrive-”, “accounts-”, “mail-”, “drive-”, and “files-” strings across hundreds of domains; overlapping WHOIS registrant names, email addresses, phone numbers, and organizations; and the use of specific server-side technology components and fake HTTP 404 Not Found errors.

Phil Neray, vice president of cyber-defense strategy at CardinalOps, says that this kind of large footprint allows for significant espionage outcomes, which is one of the hallmarks of Chinese APTs.

"China has been a top nation-state threat for many years, given their strategic use of cyber-espionage to obtain expertise in key technologies such as biotech, semiconductors, defense, and energy, by stealing proprietary intellectual property from the West," he says. "They've also targeted PII in attacks against government organizations such as the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and large health insurance organizations like Anthem, which were two of the largest data breaches in history." 

Phishing Is Phishing Is Phishing

The tactics in this case are tried and true, even if the perpetrators occupy "top-tier" status in the cybercrime pantheon.

"When it comes to phishing, threat actors at all levels generally rely on conventional aesthetic-based tactics to lure in their victims," Darren Guccione, CEO and co-founder at Keeper Security, tells Dark Reading. "Innocent people who are not trained on phishing prevention generally focus on the 'pinstripes' of the email. This means that the aesthetics they are familiar with, such as the logo and colors of a humanitarian, think tank, or government site, are used to lure them into a malicious link or form field."

It's important, however, not to underestimate the fallout from this familiar social-engineering approach. 

"Cybersecurity threats which ultimately result in breaches due to weak passwords, stolen credentials, or phishing emails are pervasive," Guccione says. "They can have devastating and long-term adverse consequences, particularly when a broad-scope espionage campaign is used to support human rights abuses."

Any organization should bolster user awareness and employ basic defenses to avoid being on the hook from phishing, Guccione adds.

"We tend to believe what we see, which is why aesthetics and a compelling user interface often trump awareness of a nefarious and incorrect URL," he notes. "The key to training is to ensure users are checking that the URL matches the authentic website. A password manager that can automatically identify when a site's URL doesn't match is a critical tool for preventing the most common password-related attacks, including phishing and credential stuffing."

CardinalOps' Neray adds that when it comes to civil-society targets specifically, "Organizations of all sizes must protect themselves by deploying continuous monitoring at all levels of their infrastructures — endpoints, network, cloud, identity — and ensuring they have SOC detection policies in place that match the latest adversary techniques employed by Chinese attackers, as documented in the MITRE ATT&CK framework."

Editors' Choice
Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor, Dark Reading
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading