The South China Sea is an increasingly dangerous place to be in cyberspace. And as China is involved in territorial disputes over the area that bears its name with virtually all of its neighbours, there are no shortages of targets for its army of state-sponsored operatives.
F-Secure is the latest security vendor to confirm what most of us know already – that Chinese hackers, most likely working for the state, have been systematically stealing data from organisations with interests in the region for years now. It’s new report, NanHaiShu: RATing the South China Sea, details a new piece of information-stealing malware used in campaigns targeting government and private sector firms. Why? They were all involved, directly or indirectly, in a recent UN tribunal over ownership of a group of rocks in the South China Sea. Victims included the Department of Justice of the Philippines, the organisers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and a major international law firm involved in the tribunal
F-Secure cyber security adviser, Erka Koivunen, told me he suspects a nation state was behind the attacks, although definitive attribution is always hard.
“Admittedly the malware itself may not be the most sophisticated piece of code there is. That doesn’t however mean that the operation wasn’t sophisticated,” he said via email. “The lack of zero-days and bleeding edge alien technology may admittedly seem a bit boring, but in fact is a sign of cold calculation and professionalism on the level of execution.”
This report is the latest of a long line of similar intelligence highlighting extensive cyber espionage in the region related to Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea and the rocks, reefs and islands that dot the landscape. Late last year a ThreatConnect report revealed an alleged PLA cyber espionage campaign dating back five years and targeting the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and many others in the region. US interests have also been attacked.
William Glass, threat intelligence analyst at FireEye, believes this is just the beginning, as China begins to flex its muscles in the region.
“More recently, we have seen the list of targets expand to energy companies, legal firms, and even GitHub, targeted by China’s Great Cannon in March 2015,” he told me. “Beyond simply stealing information, Beijing has found there are benefits to using cyberspace to propagandise and attempt to influence behaviour.”
He claimed that the army’s new Strategic Support Force may see disputes in the area as the perfect opportunity to test its significant capabilities, which could range from range from “typical cyber espionage to learn of plans and intentions of commercial companies to efforts designed to influence companies’ decisions to invest or operate in the South China Sea.”
“Recently, the Chinese media has singled out Australia and Japan for particularly harsh criticism following the tribunal ruling,” Glass explained.
“It’s possible that China-based groups—with or without official government backing—will target Australian and Japanese commercial interests in retaliation for perceived interference or in an attempt to force Canberra and Tokyo to more carefully consider any follow-on action.”
For starters, firms working in the energy, logistics and shipping, and political and legal advocacy sectors in the region would do well to redouble their cyber security efforts. But the truth is that any organisation that deals with China or works in an industry where Chinese companies have interests – which is virtually every organisation – should consider the threat of state-sponsored attacks from the East. Yes, it’s more likely they’ll encounter ransomware than an info-stealing RAT guided by the PLA. But the threat is there, and as UK organisations increasingly look to the Middle Kingdom in this post-Brexit world, it’s one they should all take seriously.
It’s widely expected that next week the government will unveil details of its hugely controversial Snoopers’ Charter, aka the Investigatory Powers Bill. To preempt this and in a bid to influence the debate cyber security firm F-Secure and 40 other tech signatories presented an open letter opposing the act.
The bill most controversially is expected to force service providers to allow the authorities to decrypt secret messages if requested to do so in extremis. This is most likely going to come in the form some kind of order effectively banning end-to-end encryption.
I heard from F-Secure security adviser Sean Sullivan on this to find out why the bill is such as bad idea.
To precis what I wrote in this Infosecurity article, his main arguments are that forcing providers to hold the encryption keys will:
- Make them a likely target for hackers, weakening security
- Send the wrong signal out to the world and damage UK businesses selling into a global marketplace
- End up in China or other potentially hostile states a service provider also operates in also requesting these encryption keys – undermining security further
- Be useless, as the bad guys will end up using another platform which can’t be intercepted
I completely agree. Especially with Sullivan’s argument that the providers would become a major target for hackers.
“End-to-end encryption makes good sense and is the future of security,” he told me by email. “Asking us to compromise our product, service, and back end would be foolish – especially considering all of the back end data breach failures that have occurred of late. If we don’t hold the data, we cannot lose control of it. That’s just good security.”
One other point he made was the confusion among politicians about tech terminology as basic as “backdoor” and “encryption”.
“A lot of UK politicians end up putting their foot in their mouth because they don’t properly understand the technology. They try to repeat what their experts have told them, but they get it wrong. UK law enforcement would probably love to backdoor your local device (phone) but that’s a lost cause,” he argued.
“The politicians (who actually know what they’re talking about) really just want back end access. As in, they want a back door in the ‘cloud’. They want to mandate warranted access to data in transit and/or in the back end (rather than data at rest on the device) and fear that apps which offer end-to-end encryption, in which the service provider doesn’t hold any decryption keys, are a threat.”
Let’s see what happens, but given the extremely low technology literacy levels among most politicians I’ve got a bad feeling about this one.