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.

Threat Intelligence

China's APT Groups May Be Looking to Cash In

Two campaigns have resulted in encrypted drives and ransom notes, suggesting that some China-linked nation-state advanced persistent threat groups have added financial gain as a motive, researchers say.

A China-linked state-sponsored group has started adopting ransomware tactics and appears to be pursuing financial gains against companies that otherwise would not be considered targets of espionage, according to an analysis of a spate of ransomware attacks published on Jan. 4.

The attacks targeted at least five online gambling companies in the first half of 2020 and had the hallmarks of the APT27 group, also known as Emissary Panda, according to the analysis written by Security Joes and Profero, two boutique incident response firms that aided the firms in defending against and cleaning up after the attacks.

Related Content:

Indictments Unlikely to Deter China's APT41 Activity

How Data Breaches Affect the Enterprise

New From The Edge: Homomorphic Encryption: The 'Golden Age' of Cryptography

The financial motive and use of ransomware would be a departure for China-linked state-sponsored hackers, which have typically focused on espionage targets, says Omri Segev Moyal, CEO of Profero. 

"In this particular case, it was 100% for monetization because they were not encrypting files of an intelligence organization or deleting them to hide their tracks," Moyal says. "They went directly to the crown jewels, they didn't exfiltrate any sensitive data, and they just encrypted them using BitLocker. It was a high-stakes cash-out against specific companies."

The cyber-operations groups of other countries have occasionally encrypted data. Attackers linked to Iran have deleted hard drives at the Saudi Arabian national oil conglomerate Saudi Aramco. And Russia is widely considered to be the source of the NotPetya wiper attack against Ukrainian firms, which appeared to be a ransomware attack but quickly spread and damaged operations at businesses worldwide. 

Some Russian hacking groups have deployed ransomware, but North Korea is the best-known nation-state using ransomware to regularly siphon funds from global companies. 

While the report hedged the attribution of the attacks — vacillating between remarking on similarities to a group known as Winnti and to APT27 — Moyal concludes that all evidence leads back to a China-backed group with "100%" certainty.

"It is really hard to tell if it is a Chinese military agency or it is one of the subcontractors working for the government," he says. "At the end of the day, it is the same people. It may be the same subcontractor or the same group or the same people."

APT27 would not be the first Chinese espionage group to shift to financially motivated attacks. In March 2020, cybersecurity firm FireEye published an extensive analysis of a group, APT41, that also appeared to be blending cyber espionage and personal financial gain. The group used exploits for virtual private network (VPN) appliances and virtual desktops to hit companies in a variety of industries in at least 20 countries, including the United States, but not China or Russia.

"[We assess] with high confidence that APT41 is a prolific cyber threat group that carries out Chinese state-sponsored espionage activity in addition to financially motivated activity potentially outside of state control," FireEye stated in a subsequent report. "Activity traces back to 2012 when individual members of APT41 conducted primarily financially motivated operations focused on the video game industry before expanding into likely state-sponsored activity."

In September, the US charged five members of the APT41 group with hacking.

In the latest attacks, the APT27 group also set itself apart because it does not use common ransomware programs but instead uses the native encryption on many Windows machines, BitLocker, to scramble the data on infected machines. BitLocker is a common way to encrypt data and hard drives on computers running Windows Professional.

"The unique thing about the incident here is that they didn't use any specialized or commercial ransomware for deniability, such as Maze or Ryuk," Profero's Moyal says. "Here, they directly used, via DRBControl, BitLocker commands directly from the payload."

The malware installed on compromised systems allows a small slate of commands, including gathering system information, changing the communications protocol, pinging the command-and-control server, and loading additional malware onto the machine.

Moyal has faith in the report's attribution of the attack, but the reasons behind the shift to financially motivated attacks continue to be a mystery, he says. 

"It happened during the peak of COVID-19 — almost every place in the world was under lockdown," he says. "Why did it change? Did they have something against gaming companies? Or was it a rogue member of the group looking for cash? Or it may be the government looking for untraceable funds? We don't know."

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
News
US Formally Attributes SolarWinds Attack to Russian Intelligence Agency
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  4/15/2021
News
Dependency Problems Increase for Open Source Components
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  4/14/2021
News
FBI Operation Remotely Removes Web Shells From Exchange Servers
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  4/14/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
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
CVE-2021-25382
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-23
An improper authorization of using debugging command in Secure Folder prior to SMR Oct-2020 Release 1 allows unauthorized access to contents in Secure Folder via debugging command.
CVE-2021-26291
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-23
Apache Maven will follow repositories that are defined in a dependency’s Project Object Model (pom) which may be surprising to some users, resulting in potential risk if a malicious actor takes over that repository or is able to insert themselves into a position to pretend to be t...
CVE-2021-31607
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-23
In SaltStack Salt 2016.9 through 3002.6, a command injection vulnerability exists in the snapper module that allows for local privilege escalation on a minion. The attack requires that a file is created with a pathname that is backed up by snapper, and that the master calls the snapper.diff function...
CVE-2021-31597
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-23
The xmlhttprequest-ssl package before 1.6.1 for Node.js disables SSL certificate validation by default, because rejectUnauthorized (when the property exists but is undefined) is considered to be false within the https.request function of Node.js. In other words, no certificate is ever rejected.
CVE-2021-2296
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-22
Vulnerability in the Oracle VM VirtualBox product of Oracle Virtualization (component: Core). The supported version that is affected is Prior to 6.1.20. Difficult to exploit vulnerability allows high privileged attacker with logon to the infrastructure where Oracle VM VirtualBox executes to compromi...