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

09:00 AM
Connect Directly

'GoldenSpy' Malware Hidden in Tax Software Spies on Companies Doing Business in China

Advanced persistent threat (APT) campaign aims to steal intelligence secrets from foreign companies operating in China.

A newly discovered attack campaign infiltrated a UK-based technology company via tax payment software required by a Chinese bank in order to conduct business in China.

Researchers at Trustwave found the so-called GoldenSpy malware during a threat-hunting operation on behalf of the victim UK company in mid-April. The UK company, which Trustwave did not disclose in its newly published research, has strong ties to the defense industry and does significant business in the US, Australia, and the UK; it recently opened operations in China.

Brian Hussey, Trustwave's vice president of cyber threat detection and response, says the attackers used a backdoor to take control of the UK company's network. To date, Trustwave has confirmed other such incidents at a software/technology company as well as at a major global financial institution.

"They [the attackers] could run Windows commands, create new users, move laterally and upload code to execute malware," Hussey says. "They could also potentially use the network access to exfiltrate data."

Hussey would not confirm the attackers were agents of the Chinese government, but did say they were motivated more by intelligence than financial gain. 

"Companies need to understand that there are risks to doing business in China and these kinds of attacks are possible," he says. "Once the attack was discovered, we segmented the network so the UK company could use the tax payment software to pay its local taxes, but the attackers no longer had access to the full network."

The Trustwave report goes on to lay out a pattern of suspicious behavior by GoldenSpy:

  • Continues to propagate even after deleted. GoldenSpy installs two identical versions of itself, both as persistent autostart services. If either stops running, it will respawn its counterpart. In addition, it uses an EXEProtector module that monitors for the deletion of either iteration of itself. If deleted, the malware will download and execute a new version. Trustwave believes that this triple-layer protection makes it exceedingly difficult to remove this kind of file from an infected system.
  • Hard to uninstall. The Intelligent Tax software's uninstall feature will not remove GoldenSpy. It leaves GoldenSpy running as an open backdoor into the environment, even after the tax software gets fully removed.
  •  Does not fully install for two hours. GoldenSpy does not download and install until a full two hours after the tax software installation process finishes. When it finally downloads and installs, it does so silently, with no notification. Trustwave considers this highly unusual and a method to hide from the victim.
  • Reaches out to suspicious domains. GoldenSpy does not contact the tax software's network infrastructure (i-xinnuo[.]com), rather, it reaches out to ningzhidata[.]com, a domain known to host other variants of the GoldenSpy malware. After the first three attempts to contact its command and control server, it randomizes beacon times to avoid network security technologies designed to identify beaconing malware. 

"They showed a lot of patience and discipline, which leads me to believe that this was an operation to gather intelligence," says Jake Williams, founder and president of Rendition Infosec. "Financially motivated attackers wouldn't look to play the long game by creating malware that slowly infiltrates the customers of the tax software company. Of course, once the news comes out, there are people who will believe that it was the Chinese [government] no matter what new information comes out, so I think it will be damaging to" them, he says.

Williams says it also could be another nation-state made to appear as if it's operating out of China. It's also interesting that tax software was used to infiltrate the UK company's systems, he notes, since tax software was also used in the NotPetya attack, which in the end caused more than $10 billion in damages. 

On the Hunt

Trustwave's Hussey said while doing routine threat analysis for its UK client, his research team found an executable file that displayed highly unusual behavior that sent system information to a suspicious Chinese domain. The processes were part of the bank's required software for paying local taxes, called Intelligent Tax, which  was developed by the Golden Tax Department of Aisino Corporation.

As Trustwave continued its investigation, it found that the tax software worked as advertised, but it also installed the hidden backdoor.

"Basically, it was a wide open door into the network with SYSTEM level privileges that connected to a command and control server completely separate from the tax software’s network infrastructure," the report said. "Based on this, and several other factors we determined this file to have sufficient characteristics to be malware. We've since fully reverse-engineered the files and named the family GoldenSpy."

Related Content


Learn from industry experts in a setting that is conducive to interaction and conversation about how to prepare for that "really bad day" in cybersecurity. Click for more information and to register for this On-Demand event. 
Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Threaded  |  Newest First  |  Oldest First
User Rank: Apprentice
6/30/2020 | 2:49:28 AM
Unbelievable, and how long will it take them to find out
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 9/17/2020
Cybersecurity Bounces Back, but Talent Still Absent
Simone Petrella, Chief Executive Officer, CyberVista,  9/16/2020
Meet the Computer Scientist Who Helped Push for Paper Ballots
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  9/16/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-19
In Spring Framework versions 5.2.0 - 5.2.8, 5.1.0 - 5.1.17, 5.0.0 - 5.0.18, 4.3.0 - 4.3.28, and older unsupported versions, the protections against RFD attacks from CVE-2015-5211 may be bypassed depending on the browser used through the use of a jsessionid path parameter.
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-18
A cleartext storage of sensitive information in Nextcloud Desktop Client 2.6.4 gave away information about used proxies and their authentication credentials.
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-18
Prototype pollution in json-bigint npm package < 1.0.0 may lead to a denial-of-service (DoS) attack.
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-18
Improper Input Validation on Citrix ADC and Citrix Gateway 13.0 before 13.0-64.35, Citrix ADC and NetScaler Gateway 12.1 before 12.1-58.15, Citrix ADC 12.1-FIPS before 12.1-55.187, Citrix ADC and NetScaler Gateway 12.0, Citrix ADC and NetScaler Gateway 11.1 before 11.1-65.12, Citrix SD-WAN WANOP 11....
PUBLISHED: 2020-09-18
Citrix ADC and Citrix Gateway 13.0 before 13.0-64.35, Citrix ADC and NetScaler Gateway 12.1 before 12.1-58.15, Citrix ADC 12.1-FIPS before 12.1-55.187, Citrix ADC and NetScaler Gateway 12.0, Citrix ADC and NetScaler Gateway 11.1 before 11.1-65.12, Citrix SD-WAN WANOP 11.2 before 11.2.1a, Citrix SD-W...