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State-Sponsored Hacking Groups Increasingly Use Cloud & Open Source Infrastructure

Microsoft shuts down Azure Active Directory instances used by attackers to evade detection and warns that the use of open source tools by espionage groups is growing.

Espionage groups increasingly use cloud-based services and open source tools to create their infrastructure for gathering data and cyberattacks, attempting to hide their activities in the massive quantity of services and resources used by legitimate organizations. 

Last week, Microsoft suspended 18 Azure Active Directory "applications" that the company identified as a component of a Chinese espionage group's command-and-control channel. Dubbed GADOLINIUM by Microsoft, the cyberattack group has adopted a combination of cloud infrastructure, which can be quickly reconstituted in the event of a takedown, and open source tools, which can help attackers' actions blend into more legitimate activity.

The group is not the only state-sponsored group to increasingly employ cloud infrastructure and open source tools, according to Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC).

"MSTIC has noticed a slow trend of several nation-state activity groups migrating to open source tools in recent years ... an attempt to make discovery and attribution more difficult," Microsoft stated in a blog post. "The other added benefit to using open-source types of kits is that the development and new feature creation is done and created by someone else at no cost."

GADOLINIUM — also known as APT40, Kryptonite Panda, and Leviathan — has focused on stealing maritime information and associated research from universities to advance China's expansion of its navy, according to an analysis by cybersecurity services firm FireEye. While the espionage group has toyed with cloud infrastructure since 2016, the use of open source tools has only happened in the past two years, Microsoft said in its own analysis.

By using commodity services and tools, the attackers not only blend into legitimate activity more completely but also become harder to identity as a specific group, says Dennis Wilson, global director of SpiderLabs at Trustwave, a security services firm.

"A sophisticated attacker becomes a lot harder to identify when they use open source tools and readily available cloud assets to perform their attacks," he says, adding that "if 20 or 30 different groups are using the same malware and the same techniques, it becomes much harder to tell them apart by their tools and tactics."

GADOLINIUM is not the only espionage group to use common tools to attempt to escape detection. Several security firms have noted that attackers are increasingly "living off the land" by using administrative tools already installed on targeted systems as a way to hide their activities. For example, another Chinese cyberattack group — known as APT41, Wicked Panda, Barium, or Axiom  —has used widely available tools, such a Microsoft BITSAdmin and the Metasploit framework, to attack a broad cross-section of countries and industries, hitting targets in Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Philippines, Qatar, and Sweden, to name a few. 

Earlier this month, the US Department of Justice charged five Chinese nationals and two Malaysian citizens as part of an investigation into APT41, alleging they worked together on intrusions into more than 100 US companies.

"The Department of Justice has used every tool available to disrupt the illegal computer intrusions and cyberattacks by these Chinese citizens," Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, said in a statement announcing the arrests. "Regrettably, the Chinese communist party has chosen a different path of making China safe for cybercriminals so long as they attack computers outside China and steal intellectual property helpful to China."

In the attack incident Microsoft described in its analysis, GADOLINIUM used a variant of PowerShell, known as PowerShell Empire, to connect to both Azure Active Directory and Microsoft's OneDrive storage. Automated systems have a hard time detecting such attacks, as the variant of PowerShell and the fact that is connecting to a known cloud service are usually not considered suspicious activity, Microsoft stated in its analysis.

"The use of this PowerShell Empire module is particularly challenging for traditional SOC monitoring to identify," MSTIC stated in its blog post. "From an endpoint or network monitoring perspective the activity initially appears to be related to trusted applications using trusted cloud service APIs."

Another advantage of basing cyberattack infrastructure in the cloud is because an increasingly number of targeted companies and organizations also have assets in the cloud. Using the same infrastructure as the target can make exploitation easier, says Trustwave's Wilson.

"If you find a tactic that works against Microsoft Azure, for example, they can apply that same tactic or technique to any organization that uses that same technology," he says. "In the past, a company may have had this vendor for a firewall and this vendor for an [endpoint detection and response] solution, but now you have a lot of companies using the same cloud infrastructure, so now it becomes a cookie-cutter approach for the attackers to exploit companies across that infrastructure."

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