Chinese Attacks on the Media Industry

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Two weeks ago the New York Times (NYT), Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Dow Jones (DJ) and Washington Post (WP) all reported being targeted and exploited by Chinese Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups.  In most cases, the compromises had reportedly been going on for quite some time and were severe enough that the Media Industry was forced over a barrel, like so many others, to stroke a check for a multi-month "cleanup on aisle nine" incident response effort.

Since the media is a highly relational and "connected" industry, it lends itself to being especially vulnerable to this type of remote exploitation.  Persistent access to media sources would be an obvious target because of the value they would provide to the Chinese. Access to timely confidential information would provide them, off the record notes, embargoed data, as well as sensitive, candid or compromising details of influential policy makers or corporate leaders to name a few.

Operational Caveat:

Cyber Squared has conducted analysis within ThreatConnect.com a threat intelligence-sharing exchange, and observed two dominate trends with regards to the media and Chinese cyber threats.  We have also uncovered additional targets and concluded that the recent attacks on the Media Industry are not the work of a single APT threat, but rather as many as six different threats groups.   All information referenced below is available within ThreatConnect.com to vetted security representatives of the effected media organizations who may register for an account.

Painting a Bigger Picture By the Numbers:

We begin with the primary and most pervasive trend that we see. Generally, Chinese APT groups will establish attack and command and control infrastructure that mimics legitimate news websites or media organizations.

A large majority of targeted spearphishing attacks will appear to be a benign news story emailed to the target with either an attachment or a malicious link.  As the victim interacts with either, their workstation and subsequently their enterprise falls victim to the APT.  In most cases, the attack circumvents traditional host based anti-virus by design. Multiple threat groups use a combination of these techniques to aggressively target their victims.

In another example, we observe multiple Chinese APT groups developing and operationalizing infrastructure so tailored that it most likely indicates that the attackers have operationalized it in an effort to directly target specific media organizations, publications and or individuals, versus indirectly targeting non-media related targets.

From analysis conducted by Cyber Squared's Threat Intelligence Team, we are able to determine that at least six APT groups are targeting the Media Industry.

APT Group 1:

From mid 2012 to present, APT Group 1 used infrastructure and capabilities that were most likely used to directly target the Dow Jones, specifically the Factiva news service, as well as indirectly target countless others with malicious content which appeared to be legitimate news stories from Dow Jones, World News and the Washington Post.  Targeting the Factiva service would have allowed attackers to obtain a wealth of information that could be used to target executives and journalists or react to market events and breaking news that the PRC leadership may consider unfavorable.

In early May 2012, APT Group 1 actors targeted the US think tank industry with a targeted attack from what appeared to be a prominent US Professor of East Asian History and Fulbright researcher.  The message contained a malicious link to a seemingly benign Washington post article about F-16 fighter sales to Taiwan, and commentary as to the sales not being in the best interest of Taiwan.  By early August 2012, APT Group 1 continued to target the US think tank industry, this time with a malicious Microsoft Word document that dropped a customized backdoor that beaconed to a secondary command and control infrastructure, closely associated with infrastructure observed in the May 2012 attack.

APT Group 2:

From late 2011 to present, Cyber Squared has observed APT Group 2 consistently using Beijing based infrastructure to possibly target and/or mimic a large named US and UK Media organization.

APT Group 3:

From mid 2012 to present, Cyber Squared has identified APT Group 3 using infrastructure to possibly target and/or mimic Philippine and Manila based news services.  APT Group 3 was also observed developing infrastructure used to emulate and target a US Defense Contractor who provides direct support to the US Navy in addition to developing infrastructure which mimicked a prominent US Pacific Command (US PACOM) web portal.  APT Group 3 continues to develop infrastructure with a consistent South China Sea and maritime focus.

APT Group 4:

From early 2012 to present, Cyber Squared has identified APT Group 4 using infrastructure to possibly target and/or mimic New York Times and a named Korean news service.

APT Group 5:

From late 2009 to present, Cyber Squared has identified APT Group 5 using infrastructure to possibly target and/or mimic named US, Australian, and Canadian news services.  In one example, Cyber Squared observed APT Group 5 developing infrastructure that appeared to mimic a local Utah based news service in late 2012.  We also observed APT Group 5 using associated infrastructure to most likely target a popular US, world news, finance, business and finance publication, in addition to numerous others within industries such as satellite communications (SATCOM), private sector defense, deep-water drilling and mining, and advanced research.

APT Group 6:

From late 2012 to present, Cyber Squared identified APT Group 6 using infrastructure to most likely target an international, multi-language US based news service that is tied to the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement outlawed in China that is often a critical of Chinese policies and human rights abuses.  Access to the US based news service would provide China State Security personnel insights to the internal news cycles, confidential sources and information that may subject mainland-Chinese journalists and their sources to arrest or intimidation.

Cyber Squared has also identified APT Group 6 most likely targeting a popular international publisher of a global metals journal and metals trading news, further research identified the same group controlling infrastructure that was tailored specifically for a large Japanese steel company and a large multi-national European steel company.  Remote access to these enterprises would provide the PRC timely insights into the metals market, possibly allowing them to obtain an unfair advantage in international metals trading.  Cyber Squared previously observed APT Group 6 targeting US Mining, Metals companies, Aerospace and Defense organizations, Manufacturing and Fabrication, as well as Construction and Engineering companies, all of which were highlighted within our 10 January 2013 blog posting, Victim-nomics: Estimating The "Cost" of Compromise.


When a particular victim or industry reports a compromise of this nature we must also begin to look for what's below the waterline.  In the case of Chinese based APT's, it is important to understand that victims need not adopt a victim mindset, or assume that they are central to the story.  In many cases, there are others like them who can provide additional insights. When industries establish a community, work together, jointly collaborate and share information about their common attacker, this shared perspective of the adversary allows organizations to minimize the term and efficacy of exploitation operations.  Even from a post-incident perspective, when industries collaborate around common threat intelligence leads they paint a bigger overall picture about what is really going on.

The NYT, WSJ, Dow Jones, and WP can now join the ranks of those like Google, RSA, Lockheed Martin, and Rio Tinto. While these organizations should be applauded for coming forward, it is equally important to consider that of all of these victims who self reported are not the central story to Chinese corporate espionage. There are many more victims and targets.  Had these organizations implemented a community based threat intelligence-sharing program into their security strategy, perhaps the compromises would not have had been so severe. By sharing what they knew, when they knew it, they could have saved someone else from the same fate.  This is no different than how a neighborhood watch works, individual homeowners working as one community jointly with local law enforcement, sharing information to keep each other and their property safe.

As of February 9th 2013, the ThreatConnect.com community was just three months old, and we are already seeing a groundswell of participation.  We are currently tracking over 12,000 actionable APT threat indicators within a growing community of over 150 users and 45 organizational accounts, across numerous sectors and industries.  These users and organizations are following an average of 21 threats groups.  What is important is that all of these organizations have 100% control their data and can choose the data they share and with whom they share it.

ThreatConnect is enabling threat analysts to collect, analyze and share threat intelligence in a timely manner, allowing them to track and mitigate sophisticated threats that may be targeting their networks.  In ThreatConnect we're bringing the framework for a community to streamline trusted sharing, all you need to bring is your desire to not be another headline.

More Stories By Rich Barger

Rich is the Chief Intelligence Officer for Cyber Squared and the ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team (TCIRT) Director.

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