Epilogue

Epilogue

Recap

In our last article, we identified Mr Zhao Jianfei as the MSS officer supporting Chinese hackers Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi. Mr Zhao works the Guangdong State Security Department, highlighting the direct support the Chinese government are providing criminal hackers in their illegal activities. We reached out to Mr Zhao for comment, and hear his side of the story, but we did not receive a response.

The bigger picture

It’s been a busy few months for the Chinese hacking community. Hafnium became a global threat almost overnight thanks to the zero-day exploit of the Microsoft Exchange Server compromise. Microsoft attributed Hafnium to the Chinese state. Their indiscriminate scattergun approach to deploying ransomware and infecting thousands of victims was wholly immoral and it is something we continue to monitor – get in touch if you can help.

MSS regional departments recruit Chinese criminals to conduct offensive cyber for the state. We now know this model is evolving, with regional bureaus outsourcing requirements to hackers not simply based in their region, but across the Chinese mainland – sharing expertise between provinces and seemingly working to one, broad model of a criminal, contracted service. Hafnium is a good example of this, with reports showing APTs 40 and 41 are just some of the many Chinese APTs taking advantage of the Exchange Server compromise.

The Chinese Communist Party are using APTs and hackers for hire to do their bidding, something we at Intrusion Truth have been asserting for some time. This was perhaps most noticeable during the COVID crisis, where state-backed Chinese hackers have been seen time and time again – across various regions and provinces, hacking into international companies known for researching and advancing the COVID vaccine – and doing so for malicious gains. Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi are a prime example of this. Stealing intellectual property and profiteering from the pandemic at a time of global crisis is a new low even for the MSS. 

Victims

The MSS’s choice of victims is interesting to note. It follows a now familiar pattern of Chinese contract hackers stealing IP for the CCP’s interests (COVID research, antiviral drugs, personal information on Chinese dissidents) whilst moonlighting for personal gain.

Mr Li in particular attempted a ransom operation in 2017 according to the indictment, demanding $15,000 in cryptocurrency in exchange for not leaking data. Is the Chinese state turning a blind eye to criminal activities within their borders? Are they supporting and actively tasking this criminal activity? Or is it evidence of the MSS not having as much control as they would like over the criminals they employ?

Denial

As we and many others have documented, China seems to give with one hand, and take with the other. Double standards spring to mind: 笑里藏刀 ‘a knife hidden behind a smile’

Public criticism of their actions does not seem to have an effect. The Chinese response is simply to deny and bite back harder. Yet we have shown the direct links between these criminal hacking groups and the MSS departments running and supporting them.

In China’s own words, cyberattacks should be ‘unequivocally condemned by all’. Perhaps a lesson out of their own book wouldn’t go a miss… 

An APT with no name

These actors and their links to the MSS challenged us. The indictment landed talking of a Chinese group working out of Chengdu. Yet we hadn’t come across them before, nor had we previously noted their connections to the GSSD. Are they part of a bigger, wider known APT (APT41 perhaps)? Are they simply ‘hackers’ for hire? Either way, it shows how difficult it is to simply partition and package Chinese hackers into APT groups – more so than previously thought.  

We wanted to take this moment and suggest a name for these actors. It seems a shame to write about a group such as this without them having an appropriate APT name… Some ideas we at Intrusion Truth came up with:

  1. HYPOCRITICAL DRAGON
  2. LAUGHING DAGGER 
  3. LONELY LANTERN 

Other creative ideas welcome – you know how to get in touch.

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… 

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