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Chinese Origin Threat Group Targets Hong Kong Universities with New Backdoor Variant




The Winnti, a China-linked threat group that has been active in the cyberspace since 2009 was found to be employing a new variant of the ShadowPad backdoor (group's new flagship tool) in the recent attacks where it compromised computer systems at two Hong Kong universities during the protests that began around March 2019 in Hong Kong.

The threat group of Chinese origins has largely targeted the gaming industry, while constantly expanding the scope of its targets. Various reports suggest Winnti being operated in link with some other groups including APT17, Ke3chang Axiom, Wicked Panda, BARIUM, LEAD, DeputyDog, Gref, and PlayfullDragon.

According to other sources available, Kaspersky was the first to identify the Winnti group but some researchers attribute its existence to the year 2007.

In October 2019, security researchers at ESET spotted two new backdoors used by the group – Microsoft SQL-targeting skip-2.0 and PortReuse. Later, the same year in November, ESET researchers discovered samples of ShadowPad Launcher Malware on various devices in the two universities. The Winnti was found to be present on these universities' systems a few weeks before the backdoor was confirmed.

“In November 2019, we discovered a new campaign run by the Winnti Group against two Hong Kong universities. We found a new variant of the ShadowPad backdoor, the group’s flagship backdoor, deployed using a new launcher and embedding numerous modules.” as per the analysis done by ESET.

“One can observe that the C&C URL used by both Winnti and ShadowPad complies to the scheme [backdoor_type][target_name].domain.tld:443 where [backdoor_type] is a single letter which is either “w” in the case of the Winnti malware or “b” in the case of ShadowPad.” reads the report.

“From this format, we were able to find several C&C URLs, including three additional Hong Kong universities’ names. The campaign identifiers found in the samples we’ve analyzed match the subdomain part of the C&C server, showing that these samples were really targeted against these universities.”

Another Chinese state-sponsored hacking groups discovered - would be the fourth one to be found


A group of cyber security analyst, Intrusion Truth have found their fourth Chinese state-sponsored hacking operation APT 40.
"APT groups in China have a common blueprint: contract hackers and specialists, front companies, and an intelligence officer," the Intrusion Truth team said. "We know that multiple areas of China each have their own APT."
APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat and is used to describe government supported and sponsored hacking groups. 

Intrusion Truth has previously exposed three government supported APTs, APT3 (believed to operate out of the Guangdong province), APT10 (Tianjin province), and APT17 (Jinan province),  they have now doxed APT40, China's cyber apparatus in the state of Hainan, an island in the South China Sea.

In a blog post, they said they've discovered 13 companies that serve as a front for APT activists. These companies use offline details, overlapping contacts and no online presence except to recruit cyber experts. 

"Looking beyond the linked contact details though, some of the skills that these adverts are seeking are on the aggressive end of the spectrum," the Intrusion Truth team said.

"While the companies stress that they are committed to information security and cyber-defense, the technical job adverts that they have placed seek skills that would more likely be suitable for red teaming and conducting cyber-attacks," they further said. 

APT40 RECRUITMENT MANAGED BY A PROFESSOR

Intrusion Truth was able to link all these companies mentioned above to a single person, a professor in the Information Security Department at the Hainan University.

One of the 13 companies was even headquartered at the university's library. This professor was also a former member of China's military. 

"[Name redacted by ZDNet] 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 anonymous researchers said.Intrusion Truth are pretty credible and have a good track record, US authorities have investigated  two of their three APT expose.