FireEye: Chinese Hacking Group Uses Espionage Tools for Personal Gain

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Security researchers at FireEye have identified a China-based cyber threat group engaged in state-sponsored espionage alongside cybercriminal activities targeting multiple industries for cash.

According to the researchers, the Chinese advanced persistent threat (APT) group dubbed APT41 is targeting organizations worldwide across 15 industries, including video games, healthcare, high-tech, and telecommunications.

“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,” according to FireEye’s report.

“APT41 is unique among tracked China-based actors in that it leverages non-public malware typically reserved for espionage campaigns in what appears to be activity for personal gain,” the company said in a blog post.

“Explicit financially-motivated targeting is unusual among Chinese state-sponsored threat groups, and evidence suggests APT41 has conducted simultaneous cybercrime and cyber espionage operations from 2014 onward.

“Like other Chinese espionage operators, APT41 espionage targeting has generally aligned with China's Five-Year economic development plans. The group has established and maintained strategic access to organizations in the healthcare, high-tech, and telecommunications sectors. APT41 operations against higher education, travel services, and news/media firms provide some indication that the group also tracks individuals and conducts surveillance.

“The group’s financially motivated activity has primarily focused on the video game industry, where APT41 has manipulated virtual currencies and even attempted to deploy ransomware. The group is adept at moving laterally within targeted networks, including pivoting between Windows and Linux systems, until it can access game production environments. From there, the group steals source code as well as digital certificates which are then used to sign malware. More importantly, APT41 is known to use its access to production environments to inject malicious code into legitimate files which are later distributed to victim organizations. These supply chain compromise tactics have also been characteristic of APT41’s best known and most recent espionage campaigns.

“APT41 leverages an arsenal of over 46 different malware families and tools to accomplish their missions, including publicly available utilities, malware shared with other Chinese espionage operations, and tools unique to the group. The group often relies on spear-phishing emails with attachments such as compiled HTML (.chm) files to initially compromise their victims.”

According to FireEye, the group has targeted organizations in 14 countries (and Hong Kong) over seven years, including France, India, Italy, Japan, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, South Africa, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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