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.
China’s head honcho when it comes to censorship recently stepped down. This being China, no-one seems to know whether he was effectively sacked, or asked to move to a new bigger and better role. But what we do know is that things aren’t going to get any better for those inside the Great Firewall.
Over the past three years, Lu Wei has been a constant thorn in the side of rights groups, diplomats and Silicon Valley bosses. His aggressive defence of China’s sovereign right to do with its internet what it sees fit – most notably at the laughably titled World Internet Conference in Wuzhen – has been jarring at times. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) he headed up also runs root CA and .cn operator the Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). As such, it was blamed by Google last year for issuing unauthorized TLS certificates for several of its domains, which were subsequently used in man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.
Even more damning, the CAC was accused of launching Man in the Middle attacks on Outlook users last year in response to its migration to HTTPS, which the authorities can’t monitor. And then it was pegged for a DDoS attack on anti-censorship organisation Greatfire.org – a constant thorn in the side of the authorities in Beijing.
I spoke to Greatfire.org co-founder Charlie Smith about the reasons for and implications of Lu’s departure.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? We probably just had the quietest anniversary of Tiananmen [Square massacre] yet, in terms of online dissent and discussion. There is more censorship in general. Less circumvention because of a crackdown on VPNs. And fewer foreign companies are trying to challenge the status quo,” he told me via email.
“We know controlling the medium is pretty near the top of [president] Xi Jinping’s agenda. So why make a change now? The timing likely indicates that this was a planned and not a rash decision. There was no need to unsettle things before the 4 June anniversary and the change happens well before the next ‘World’ Internet Conference in Wuzhen.”
Smith went on to argue that, even though Lu presided over an unprecedented crack down on internet freedom – primarily through a new regulation banning the spread of “rumours” online – he didn’t go far enough.
“Lu was not perfect. As we have shown, it is impossible to completely block all information for those inside China,” Smith continued. “Maybe in this regard, Lu was being blamed and Xi decided he wanted somebody who can get the job done. Maybe Xi was upset about being ‘vilified as a murder suspect’ and could not comprehend why Lu Wei was unable to scrub information from the Chinese internet.”
Lu’s removal, if that is what it was, may also have been an attempt by Xi at curbing his growing influence – after all, propaganda is at the heart of the Party’s power and everyone inside knows it. His replacement, Xu Lin, is a Xi Jinping acolyte and one time deputy secretary of Tibet’s Shigatse Prefecture who will certainly toe the presidential line.
As Smith put it, “if Xu Lin fails to quell ‘rumours and slander’ Xi does not have to second-guess whether or not Xu is doing everything within his power to stop these attacks.”
So what prospects for the future? Pretty grim if you’re inside China and are a fan of human rights and internet freedom.
Beijing was one of a few countries – Russia, India, Indonesia included – that voted against a non-binding resolution at the UN this week stating all individuals must be afforded the same rights online as offline and that the universal right to freedom of expression should be upheld online.
As Smith said, if Xu Lin “handles information control on the Chinese internet the same way the authorities handle information control in Tibet then the situation could even get worse.”
There is some hope for businesses and individuals which need to leap the Great Firewall.
The hope is that it will encourage greater use of VPNs and help developers improve their circumvention products, as well as provide a much needed additional source of revenue for Greatfire.
The concern is that if it gets popular enough, Beijing will do all it can to put it out of action.