BlackBerry researchers have released a new report that examines how five related APT groups operating in the interest of the Chinese government have systematically targeted Linux servers, Windows systems and Android mobile devices while remaining undetected for nearly a decade.
The report comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Justice announcing several high-profile indictments from over 1,000 open FBI investigations into economic espionage as part of the DOJ’s China Initiative.
The BlackBerry report, titled Decade of the RATs: Cross-Platform APT Espionage Attacks Targeting Linux, Windows and Android, examines how APTs have leveraged the “always on, always available” nature of Linux servers to establish a “beachhead” for operations. Given the profile of the five APT groups involved and the duration of the attacks, it is likely the number of impacted organizations is significant, says the company.
The cross-platform aspect of the attacks is also of particular concern in light of security challenges posed by the sudden increase in remote workers, says a BlackBerry blog. "The tools identified in these ongoing attack campaigns are already in place to take advantage of work-from-home mandates, and the diminished number of personnel onsite to maintain security of these critical systems compounds the risks. While the majority of the workforce has left the office as part of containment efforts in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, intellectual property remains in enterprise data centers, most of which run on Linux," notes the blog.
According to BlackBerry, most large organizations rely on Linux to run websites, proxy network traffic and store valuable data. While Linux may not have the visibility that other front-office operating systems have, it is arguably the most critical where the security of critical networks is concerned. Linux runs nearly all of the top 1 million websites, 75 percent of all web servers, 98 percent of the world’s supercomputers and 75 percent of major cloud service providers (Netcraft, 2019, Linux Foundation, 2020).
“Linux is not typically user-facing, and most security companies focus their engineering and marketing attention on products designed for the front office instead of the server rack, so coverage for Linux is sparse,” said Eric Cornelius, Chief Product Architect at BlackBerry.
“These APT groups have zeroed in on that gap in security and leveraged it for their strategic advantage to steal intellectual property from targeted sectors for years without anyone noticing.”
Other key findings in the report include:
- The APT groups examined in this report are likely comprised of civilian contractors working in the interest of the Chinese government who readily share tools, techniques, infrastructure, and targeting information with one another and their government counterparts.
- The APT groups have traditionally pursued different objectives and focused on a wide array of targets; however, it was observed that there is a significant degree of coordination between these groups, particularly where targeting of Linux platforms is concerned.
- The research identifies two new examples of Android malware, continuing a trend seen in a previous report from BlackBerry researchers, titled Mobile Malware and APT Espionage: Prolific, Pervasive, and Cross-Platform, which examined how APT groups have been leveraging mobile malware in combination with traditional desktop malware in ongoing cross-platform surveillance and espionage campaigns.
- One of the Android malware samples very closely resembles the code in a commercially available penetration testing tool, yet the malware is shown to have been created nearly two years before the commercial tool was first made available for purchase.
- The report examines several new variants of well-known malware that are getting by network defenders through the use code-signing certificates for adware, a tactic that the attackers hope will increase infection rates as AV red flags are dismissed as just another blip in a constant stream of adware alerts.
- The research also highlights a shift by attackers towards the use of cloud service providers for command-and-control (C2) and data exfiltration communications which appear to be trusted network traffic.
“This research paints a picture of an espionage effort targeting the very backbone of large organizations’ network infrastructure that is more systemic than has been previously acknowledged,” said John McClurg, Chief Information Security Officer at BlackBerry. “This research opens another chapter in the Chinese IP theft story, providing us with new lessons to learn.”