An (in)Competent Cyber Program – A brief cyber history of the ‘CCP’

FeaturedAn (in)Competent Cyber Program – A brief cyber history of the ‘CCP’

Every so often, we like to take the opportunity to step back from our regular OSINT sleuthing and take stock about why we spend our time doing what we do.

So, we thought we would honour the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by pulling together a brief history of how the Chinese cyber programme developed into what it is today and our musings on this trajectory.

Our take on the history of the Chinese Cyber Programme

The First World Hacker War

Cyber is entwined with the real-world. Not a particularly ground-breaking statement. But an important one to make. Real world tensions can spill into the cyber realm, and vice versa. Remember the 2001 China-US tension? To refresh your memory, a US EP-3 aircraft collided with the Chinese F-8 fighter jet and the Chinese pilot was killed. What followed was a sustained DDoS attack against US servers including defacement of the White House and military from Chinese hacktivists. US hacktivists retaliated and it became a cyber graffiti war of sorts. What we found interesting is that it wasn’t until the Chinese called out this behaviour as ‘web terrorism’ that the attacks stopped. 

China: No longer hiding its strength

Former leader Deng Xiaoping touted the mantra of ‘hide your strength and bide your time’ (韬光隐晦). Well, it seems that time has passed, and with Xi Jinping now at the helm, China is certainly showing its strength on the world stage. China is no longer hiding from the world. 

China has aggressively and consistently built its national cyber program, prioritising education in computer science and technology and creating a recruitment pipeline of graduates from within its universities. Its focus seemingly being on offensive capabilities rather than security or intelligence analysis.  

As evidenced in our bottom-heavy timeline (seen above), the CCP have increased their scope for hacking and stealing. What is obvious to any observer is that they hack indiscriminately – friends and enemies are fair game. China’s BRI initiative is even considered a driver of cyber activity, which this graphic from Security Affairs neatly highlights.

Tsinghua university IP traffic aligning with BRI initiatives

And their activity is at an industrial scale. This uptick reflects the CCP’s priorities targeting intellectual property (IP) that have coincided with China’s Five-Year Plans. It is now so common that barely a day goes by without another article reporting Chinese cyber theft. Provides us with lots of rich content though!

Disgruntled Hackers and ties to Academia

Back in 2013, a disgruntled hacker from the PLA (given the name Wang) wrote about his time in the PLA hacking for his country. “My only mistake was that I sold myself out to the country for some minor benefits and put myself in this embarrassing situation,” he wrote on his blog. Few incentives and minimal benefits can lead some to defect and leave. Who knew. We wonder if conditions have changed in China since.

What hasn’t changed however are the links between Chinese hackers and academia. Wang himself co-authored two academic papers whilst at the PLA university. And interestingly, it was this same year that Cyb3rSleuth outed Zhang Changhe. His 9-5 job was as an assistant professor at the PLA Engineering University. Cyb3rSleuth was one of the first public uses of OSINT to attribute Chinese cyber-attacks to named individuals within the Chinese system (having named 10 Chinese hackers in total). Kudos – an inspiration to our platform.

Cyb3rSleuth identifying Zhang Changhe from Chinese social media as a PLA hacker

Further, it was a Tsinghua university (清华大学) IP (self-proclaimed state-owned technological institution) that engaged in network reconnaissance targeting a number of countries actively working with China on their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – see image above.

The PLA led the way with cyber hacking back in the 90’s and early 00’s. However, in 2015 there appeared to be a shift within the Chinese government, with the PLA transferring the bulk of cyber operations over to the MSS. After all, when the PLA hack – it’s very clear the direction of activity is coming from within the Party itself. This transfer (at least in the mind of the CCP) enabled plausible deniability following the public indictments of PLA unit 61398 a year earlier. After all, signing cyber agreements with a number for Western countries meant the Chinese military needed to ‘hide their strength’ and fade into the shadows.

Enter the MSS

As dedicated readers will know by now, it is the MSS that we at Intrusion Truth have focussed on for some time. And we do so given their continued support and engagement with criminal hackers. The MSS get something out of this relationship: deniability on the world stage (supposedly). But what do the criminal hackers get out of this? I’m sure some would say ‘security’. After all, the relationship between citizen and the state is deliberately murky. In recent years, there is evidence that China will not prosecute hackers within its borders unless they attack China. However, as indictments have shown, the Chinese state cannot, and do not, protect their own.

China is a vast surveillance state. They monitor everything and everyone. Thus, one could say that their continued denial of Chinese APTs, or cries of rouge actors… is laughable. Chinese APTs leave traces of their activity on the internet. Whether this is due to their naivety, thinking the state will cover their activities, or their inability to understand that the Great Firewall does not actually prevent others connecting to Chinese infrastructure and seeing their mistakes – only they know. Perhaps they have started believing their own propaganda: ‘We are world-leading, stealthy, and advanced threat actors’. Or perhaps they simply do not care? What is evident though is their sloppiness, which is something we are more than willing to highlight, evidence and make public.

State-sponsored theft

Chinese IP theft represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history. And their targeting is indiscriminate – from innovation and R&D (rice and corn seeds, software for wind turbines, naval engineering and medical research), to personally identifiable information (PII) and sensitive government documents. Ultimately, anything that provides China an edge is fair game. The methods China uses rely less on physically stealing data, and more on MSS contract hackers being tasked to steal it from within China’s borders.

There is a distinction made between a hacker and a criminal. Some might say one man’s hacker is another’s freedom fighter. Yet there are ethical and moral boundaries which the Chinese continue to violate. Utilising criminals to hack for the state’s bidding, and to do so to steal IP from hard-working companies provides an unfair advantage to prop up Chinese businesses. They can’t be pioneering or forerunners in their own right and seem to have concluded that they need to steal to gain a competitive advantage.  And this is theft condoned and actively encouraged by the Chinese state. A state which is rapidly emerging into a global superpower. It is a powerful message to be sending the world.

Home-grown hēikè

The Wooyun.org shutdown appears to be one of the first events which highlights the CCP’s direction of travel to essentially hoard offensive cyber capabilities by restricting the publication of 0-day vulnerabilities. In a statement on Sina, founder of Qihoo 360 Zhou Hongyi (周鸿祎) stated that it was only ‘imaginary success’ when competing in overseas competitions. Rather, Chinese hackers and their knowledge should ‘stay within China’ so they could recognize the true importance and “strategic value” of the software vulnerabilities. Following this, China restricted travel for Chinese hackers, instead inviting them to compete in the home-grown Tianfu competition. The very same event where the winning vulnerability (Chaos) has been aggressively used to target Uyghurs.

The APT side hustle

An increasing number of reports highlight activity from Chinese APTs deploying ransomware on their victims and hacking for-profit, using the same tactics, tools and occasionally time as their MSS campaigns to conduct this side business. This has included the repurposing of state-sponsored malware in the gaming industry, stealing virtual currencies and selling malicious apps.

A really interesting article on China’s Sina Games portal details an interview with a Chinese hacker. He comments that online games are the most valuable part of the Chinese hacking industry. His reasoning? That China’s internet’s security consciousness is weak. Granted this article is old. But what is interesting is the openness to which a Chinese hacker talks of hacking Chinese netizens for profit. Yet it seems this focus might have changed over the years, with China’s hackers now focusing outside of the Firewall.

The Chinese government is permitting cyber criminals to conduct this activity within its borders. We have evidenced direct involvement of criminal hackers with the MSS, whilst others in the InfoSec community have proven clear Chinese state links to APT intrusion activity.

So, is it tactical toleration on behalf of the MSS to allow these hackers to conduct cybercrime outside of its borders for self-profit? Do the MSS pay their hackers so poorly that they have to let them make money on the side to keep them sweet? Or have the MSS lost control of the criminals it employs to do its dirty work?

We are also seeing greater sharing of tools, techniques and knowledge across Chinese APT groups. This is most evident with Hafnium, where a large number of Chinese APT groups were concurrently and recklessly using the MES vulnerability. Increased crossover in malware and TTPs points to greater knowledge sharing and a higher level of organisation than what China would have us believe.

Chain of command

As we know, Chinese APTs take direction from the Chinese state. This is a pattern starting with front companies, leading back to MSS contract hackers and ultimately to local and regional MSS bureaus. It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is something more at play here. A cyber campaign of sorts; coordinated, run and tasked by seniors within the MSS?

We have evidenced multiple Chinese APTs which have relationships with MSS officers and are behind global campaigns of cyber hacking. Yet China keeps denying responsibility, crying that claims of their APT activity is ‘baseless with no evidence’… we would recommend our blog as some light reading in this regard.

So, who is leading the Chinese Cyber Programme?

Let’s look upwards. Someone is leading the coordination of China’s cyber campaign. The multiple APTs, appearing across various provinces within China, are all linked by the MSS bureaus sitting behind these groups. And there is one person in charge of the MSS.

One person giving the direction.

One person overseeing the Chinese cyber programme.

That person?

Chen Wenqing (陈文清).

Cyber karma

Beijing come across as powerful within the offensive cyber space. After all, their state is actively, aggressively and successfully sponsoring malign cyber activity against fellow states, private companies, industry and individual people. Yet Beijing also see themselves as vulnerable.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is the country’s internet regulator and official body for enacting censorship. Recently, it stepped into the controversy around Didi (the ride-hailing app), ordering it to undergo a cybersecurity review ahead of its IPO in New York. The CAC later released a security-review revision in which it said companies holding personal data on at least one million users must apply for a cybersecurity review before any foreign listings.

Are China’s actions causing reactions? It’s almost as if the Chinese government know that their bulk collection of data on Chinese citizens is contentious. They lead the way in stealing PII from foreign governments and organisations – and the CAC know how powerful this data can be. Did they read our article outing APT10 using Uber receipts and are understandably worried about the vast data personal data holdings Didi might reveal on some of their senior officials?

Cyber karma – It is the guilty party that assumes everyone else is doing the same thing as them.

Conclusion

There has been 100 years of the CCP but only 38 years of the MSS. Yet there are a number of questions which remain unanswered (ie, we’d like more evidence to help answer, might we say):

  1. Does Xi know what the MSS are doing in cyber space?
  2. Do the CCP understand how their actions undermine the positive narrative China would like the world to believe?
  3. Does the benefit of the Chinese cyber programme outweigh the costs to the Chinese leadership?

Happy Birthday CCP

生日快乐. As our present to you for reaching this auspicious milestone, we promise to stick with you and keep a close eye on what the MSS cyber programme is up to. We will continue to pen more attribution pieces as long as you support your APTs and deny they are working for you.

Psst. Chinese cyber hackers: If you are reading this, please do enjoy our fun quiz we put together. We feel the flowchart neatly leads to the right outcome.

Who is Mr. Zhao?

Who is Mr. Zhao?

In our last article, we identified a number of front companies used by two Chengdu-based indicted hackers Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi. 

What struck us when reading the US indictment was reference to the Guangdong State Security Department (GSSD). As eager readers of Intrusion Truth will note, we discussed the Guangdong SSD in our very first article series and their use of Boysec as a front company. However we didn’t manage to identify the MSS officers behind APT3. We feel there is unfinished business here and so we set to work to uncover MSS Officer 1.

We started with an address.

GSSD HQ

Why is the Guangdong Province International Affairs Research Centre (GPIARC) interesting? Well, its claim to fame most recently comes from the 2020 indictment, revealing it as a GSSD cover company. The address: Number 5, 6th Crossroad, Upper Nonglin Road, Yuexiu District, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province (越秀区农林上路六横道5号). 

We decided to reach out to our network of contributors, asking about the GPIARC and any previous reference to this company or their known address. We received an interesting response from a trusted source who wishes to remain anonymous. This source, with connections to the Bank of China, was able to provide a number of historic credit card statement sent to the cover address at Upper Nonglin Road. One bank statement in particular stood out.

Zhao Jianfei (赵剑飞)

On the top left corner on the image below, the corresponding address is Unit 5, 6th Crossroad, Upper Nonglin Road, Yuexiu District, Guangzhou. Furthermore, all the transactions appear in Guangzhou, Guangdong. 

We know this address is a cover for the GSSD. So, whoever is using this address works directly for the GSSD. So, who is this MSS officer?  

Underneath the address is a single name to which the statement is addressed to: Zhao Jianfei (赵剑飞). 

Interesting. So, we know Zhao was receiving correspondence about a credit card bill, using the GSSD cover company as the address. It stands to reason that Zhao Jianfei is an MSS officer, working for the Guangdong SSD. Could he be MSS Officer 1?

Asls1027

An FBI flash memo released on the 21st July reveals further information pertaining to the email used by MSS Officer 1 to send Li and Dong zero-day exploits for use in their APT campaign. The memo has redacted the mail provider, but the handle is the bit we need: asls1027.

Remember when we said one statement in particular from the Bank of China was interesting to us?

Well, turns out that Bank of China sent the credit card statement to the personal email of Zhao Jianfei. 

The email address was asls1027@hotmail.com.

Zhao Jianfei is an MSS officer, working for the GSSD and receiving credit card statements to the address of a GSSD cover company. Furthermore, this correspondence was sent to his personal email; the same email account that sent cyber actors a zero-day exploit for use in their illegal activities.

Zhao Jianfei has been directing Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi by providing them with malware and supporting their APT campaign.

Asls1027’s social media

As we know, humans are biased and often rely on availability heuristics: we tend to choose the least cognitively demanding option. As such, we tend to reuse email handles, passwords and so on. And it appears our Mr. Zhao falls into this category, reusing his handle across multiple social media sites.

Asls1027 has an interest in cars, posting on the car forum autohome.com.cn.

He also maintains a relatively empty yet bizarre Twitter profile. 

However none of this provided us with any more information on Zhao Jianfei himself. We know he uses the asls handle and his name is Zhao Jianfei so we decided to get even more creative, and found an interesting profile on Facebook with the stub Asls Zh.

Given the unique of the handle ‘asls’, we strongly believe this profile belongs to our Mr. Zhao. The profile picture was updated in 2014, a similar timeframe to other asls social media posts, as well as Zhao’s credit card activity in Guangdong. Zh = Zhao.

It seems Zhao was born in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Also note Asls Zh’s current residence – Guangzhou, in Guangdong Province. The same location as the Zhao Jianfei’s credit statement. 

Asls Zh went to the PLA Information Engineering University to study Computer Science. It fits with what we know about MSS Officer 1, and his ability to deploy zero-day exploits to support criminal hackers.

Conclusion

Zhao Jianfei is MSS Officer 1. 

He grew up in Shanxi, and attended a PLA university studying computer science. He now resides in Guangdong and has been working for the GSSD from at least 2013. An email account linked to his GSSD activity was also used to send Li and Dong malware to advance their APT campaign. 

Contract hackers – check. 

Front companies – check.

MSS officer working to the Guangdong State Security Department – check.

An APT with no name

An APT with no name

When the 7th July indictment was released naming two Chinese hackers affiliated with the Guangdong State Security Department, it grabbed our interest. Hackers… in China…working with the MSS. Sounds right up our street. But who are Li Xiaoyu (李啸宇) and Dong Jiazhi (董家志)? How do they conduct their activity? The indictment also mentions an unnamed MSS Officer 1. Who could this be? Let’s start with the named hackers…  


FBI wanted poster naming indicted hackers Li Xiaoyu (李啸宇) and Dong Jiazhi 董家志)

Former classmates, Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi studied Computer Application Technologies at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC) in Chengdu. Mr Dong and Mr Li are not individuals we have come across before in our investigations into Chinese APTs. However, we do love a challenge. So, we set about getting to work and decided to start in the city Li and Dong are based: Chengdu.

Our findings reveal a number of spurious science and technology companies linked to the indicted actors. A familiar pattern is once again emerging… 

Chengdu Shirun Technology Company Ltd (成都诗润科技有限公司)

Let’s start with Dong Jiazhi. There is very little to go on from the indictment. However, we know Chinese APTs follow a common blueprint: One of contract hackers and specialists, front companies and an intelligence officer. 

We know Mr Li and Mr Dong are the contract hackers. So we set about digging into their connections to front companies based in Chengdu. 

It turns out Dong has been investing in a company called Chengdu Shirun Technology Company Ltd. Specifically, 30,000RMB came from Dong, who invested in the company when it was registered. This roughly equates to $4,5000 or £3,500.


Registrant of Chengdu Shirun Technology Company Ltd: Dong Jiazhi

A deeper look into this company reveals its location is 16 Tongsheng Rd, Qingyang District, Chengdu. It also provides a contact number: 18828070461.

Interestingly, this is not the only company that is linked to this contact number. It seems a number of other companies in Chengdu also share this point of contact.

Chengdu Hanke Technology Company Ltd. (成都撼科科技有限公司)

This company shares the same contact number as Chengdu Shirun but lists this as an email contact (18828070461@139.com). Additional contact numbers (18980738906 and 18190696626) are also provided. 


Contact details for Chengdu Hanke Technology Company Ltd.

Even more interesting is the change record for the company. Prior to 2019, Dong Jiazhi was listed as the company contact.


Change record for Chengdu Hanke listing Dong Jiazhi on line 3

Chengdu Hanke doesn’t have much of a presence. The website domain 51409903.1024sj.com does not exist. However, we did come across a LinkedIn profile for someone who claims to be the project manager and lead programmer – a Kevin Lynx. Further digging did not reveal anything more on this person or the company. Kevin, if you are out there – feel free to get in touch…

Chengdu Xinglan Technology Company Ltd. (成都兴蓝科技有限公司)

It seems 18828070461 is a theme. The number from Shirun and the 139 email from Hanke was also used to register another Chengdu-based technology company: Chengdu Xinglan. 

So who is behind this company? Well, as we mentioned, it shares contact details with companies linked to Dong. And Mr Dong is mentioned as the company’s primary point of contact.


Company registration details listing Dong Jiazhi as a contact person for Chengdu Xinglan on line 2.

Furthermore, records show Li Xiaoyu as Chengdu Xinglan’s legal representative, CEO and Executive Director, having a 99% stake in the company. It seems the pair intertwined at University, and expanded together into their business ventures and criminal activity concealed by front companies based in Chengdu.  


Chengdu Xinglan, detailing the 18828070461 contact email and Li Xiaoyu as the company’s legal representative.  

Chengdulzy

Li and Dong haven’t learnt to mix things up – reusing the same email number for their multiple front companies. 

And once again, this number (18828070461) was used as the registrant contact number for a domain: ‘chengdulzy.com’.

The registrant of this domain? Dong Jiazhi. Unfortunately, we haven’t found out what this domain was used for, and it now appears to have been deleted. 

Chengdu’s many Science and Technology companies

We are finding a similar pattern to previous investigations. An overlap of numbers and emails linking to contract hackers (Dong and Li), and subsequently to a number of technology companies based in Chengdu. All with little to no online presence suggests – you guessed it – front companies. 

However, what about the individuals themselves? They clearly have been busy investing in, and creating multiple technology businesses within Chengdu to act as fronts for their hacking activity. But what else have they left on the internet for us to find? 

Oro0lxy

The handle used by Li, and named in the indictment provides a helpful starting point. A quick scan of the internet shows various accounts with this handle, most now defunct or empty but the majority pertaining to hacking forums, such as the Chinese Software Developers Network (CSDN).

It seems oro0lxy has had a long standing interest in ColdFusion, using this knowledge (according to the indictment) to develop vulnerabilities in support of his APT activity.


oro0lxy posts question on CSDN ColdFusion sub forum

In keeping with his interest in this vulnerability, Li was appointed moderator of a website for ColdFusion developers, CFwindow.com, in 2012. 

However, oro0lxy was later flagged for posting scams on CSDN.

QQ account links

Looking into Li and Dong’s QQ accounts, we attempted to identify their actions and any overlaps that were interesting or of note. According to leaked databases, QQ 3120988 was associated with the display name Li Xiaoyu, whilst QQ 191956463 had historically used the username Dong Jiazhi.

We also pulled out a number of QQ groups that crossed the two hackers profiles. Specifically their QQ accounts linking to university groups such as ‘Class of 2005, Class 5’ (2005 级5 班),‘Information Security Lab’ (信息安全实验室) and ‘Computer Applications Technology Class 2’ (计算机应用技术 2 班). 

These are historic but provide useful context for what we know about the pair. Get in touch with us if you have any further information or leads pertaining to these accounts.

So… we know that Li and Dong have been indicted as hackers working to the MSS. Contract hackers – check. 

We know that they set up a number of front companies based in Chengdu to shield their APT activity. Front companies – check.

And we know they have been working together for a number of years, having met at university and remained active on Chinese hacker forums. But who specifically is behind their activity with the Guangdong State Security Department? Who is MSS Officer 1?

Tune in next week to find out… 

#youknowwherethisleads

Who is Mr Ding?

Who is Mr Ding?

We started by stating that Chinese APTs have a blueprint that us applied in multiple regions across China: contract hackers and specialists, front companies, and an intelligence officer. Applying this blueprint in Hainan, we surfaced inter-linked companies recruiting for people with hacking and specialist IT skills.

We have identified that Professor Gu Jian is connected to the front company Hainan Xiandun and supported some of their activities from his position at Hainan University. But his was more of a supporting role. Who was in charge?

Continue reading “Who is Mr Ding?”

Who else works for this cover company network?

Who else works for this cover company network?

In our previous articles we identified a network of front companies for APT activity in Hainan, and showed that Gu Jian, an academic at Hainan University, is listed as a contact person for one of these companies – Hainan Xiandun. Additionally, Gu Jian appeared to manage a network security competition at the university and was reportedly seeking novel ways of cracking passwords, offering large amounts of money to those able to do so. The registered address for Hainan Xiandun is the Hainan University Library.

Our analysts and contributors were reassured to know that this blog is not alone in being suspicious of these Hainan front companies. Questions abound online about why these companies have such a thin presence on the Internet or, as below, whether the jobs they are promoting even exist.

This Chinese post is titled “Hainan Yili Technology Company: How can you find this company on the Internet, can I trust this job advert?” and asks other users of the site for their views.

Continue reading “Who else works for this cover company network?”

Who is Mr Gu?

Who is Mr Gu?

In our previous articles we identified thirteen companies that this blog knows are a front for APT activity in Hainan. Following further analysis, we noticed a close association between these Hainan front companies and the academic world. Multiple job adverts for the the companies are posted on university websites. Hainan Xiandun even appears to operate from the Hainan University Library!

Continue reading “Who is Mr Gu?”

What is the Hainan Xiandun Technology Development Company?

What is the Hainan Xiandun Technology Development Company?

This blog has previously shown that by starting with an APT it is possible to identify the individuals and companies responsible for conducting their attacks and the State actors behind them. We have also shown that you can start with the State and work backwards to the APT.

APT groups in China have a common blueprint: contract hackers and specialists, front companies, and an intelligence officer. We know that multiple areas of China each have their own APT.

After a long investigation we now know that it is possible to take a province and identify front companies, from those companies identify individuals who work there, and then connect these companies and individuals to an APT and the State.

Continue reading “What is the Hainan Xiandun Technology Development Company?”

Is there a pattern?

Is there a pattern?

Readers of this blog will know that our investigations into APT3 and APT10 started with well-known intrusions and ended with the identities of the perpetrators and the identification of a front company connected to the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS).

As we pointed out on Twitter in December, there seems to be a pattern developing – a regional office of the MSS creates a company, hires a team of hackers and attacks Western targets. Why the MSS insists on using sloppy contracted hackers is beyond us here at Intrusion Truth, but the pattern is undeniable.

Continue reading “Is there a pattern?”

APT3 is Boyusec, a Chinese Intelligence Contractor

APT3 is Boyusec, a Chinese Intelligence Contractor

In our last three posts we introduced you to APT3 and identified two individuals responsible for purchasing their domain names – Wu Yingzhuo and Dong Hao. An IP addresses in Guangdong, China was associated with some of the domains.

Both individuals have a long history of purchasing APT3 infrastructure. Who do they work for and where do their orders come from?

Continue reading “APT3 is Boyusec, a Chinese Intelligence Contractor”

Who is Mr Dong?

Who is Mr Dong?

In our last post we showed how, through WHOIS data, it is possible to identify Wu Yingzhuo, an APT3 operator who registered domain names for the group and advertised online offering help with Trojan development.

The story finished with http[.]net, a domain name that we showed was connected to APT3, and that was registered to Yingzhuo Wu. In this post we will show how the trail continues and allows us to identify a second APT3 member, Mr Dong.

Continue reading “Who is Mr Dong?”