The Thousand Grains of Sand In The Electronic Age: China’s Cyber Espionage Capabilities Outstripping Ours
Advanced persistent threat (APT) usually refers to a group, such as a foreign nation state government, with both the capability and the intent to persistently and effectively target a specific entity. The term is commonly used to refer to cyber threats, in particular that of cyber espionage, but applies equally to other threats such as that of traditional espionage or attack. Individuals, such as an individual hacker, are not usually referred to as an APT as they rarely have the resources to be both advanced and persistent even if they are intent on gaining access to, or attacking, a specific target.
Advanced Persistent Threats Are Not New: 先进的威胁不是持久性的新功能：
The news cycle has been abuzz again as to how China is capable of beating the pants off of us in the hacking sphere and that we should be worried. I say, this is not news in any way and those of you who read this blog should already know this fact. For those of you who are not so familiar with the DoD space, the knowledge of what has been called APT has been around for quite some time. In fact, the term was coined in 2006 by the Air Force, but the attack structure of how the Chinese and other state actors had been using similar tactics on DoD infrastructure goes back to the 90’s (Moonlight Maze, Titan Rain)
So, hello world outside of the insular DoD and Infosec sphere, They have been around quite a while. In fact, one could make the extension that the Chinese line of thought called “The Thousand Grains of Sand” has been around far longer and has been used as their model of espionage for a very long time. Obviously the connections can also be made to Sun Tzu and his precepts on warfare, which, just happen to involve a fair amount of espionage as the means to winning a war. It is little surprise to anyone who knows the Chinese mind and the teachings of Sun Tzu, that China would apply these same precepts to another battle space (cyberspace) the fifth domain as the US military calls it now.
APT and Buzzword Bingo: APT和Buzzword的宾果：
Since the Aurora operation’s being publicised, the media and the Infosec industry have latched onto the term like a pit-bull on a gravy covered bone. Many companies have leveraged the term without really knowing the true meaning and have created a buzzword bingo game of epic proportions. All of these companies and pundits have over used the terminology, mainly incorrectly to start, and turned it into the boogey man du jour to make sales.
“The APT is out there.. Lurking.. Waiting to get into your networks and steal your data”
While this may be true for some, it is not true for all. Over the years the Chinese have made it their business to steal a lot of data. Some of it you would readily see as important militarily or for industrial espionage. Some of the data though, is more arcane to understand as to the reasons that they would make the efforts that they have to get it. Overall though, one must understand yet again, the Eastern mind (particularly the Chinese) to conclude that they seek many “soft power” means to effect their goals. This is the key fact to understand, so yes, your company that makes the next best widget might in fact be a target of the Chinese TRB (Technical Reconnaissance Bureau)
So, yes, you must be cognisant of the APT in any business that your company carries out online. However, one thing must be accepted by you and your company to judge how you will respond.
“The Advanced Persistent Threat, will in the end, most likely win and compromise your systems. Simply because as state actors, they have the means to do so and you, the tartget, will always have someone willing to click on a link and compromise their systems”
This must be accepted and understood before you even attempt to listen to any vendor who says they can help you with your APT problems. Just as well, one must clearly understand the players here to know the danger. The media has done a very poor job of elucidating for the general populace the meaning of APT and the subtleties of how the threats manifest and their greater meanings to us all. There is far more at stake here than just your data being exfiltrated to China and many more vectors of attack than your local desktop.
The Fall Of The Bear & The Rise of the Dragon: 作者：熊暨龙升降：
Since the Soviet Union’s demise in the 90’s the Chinese have seen their chance to become the pre-eminent power in the world that once was the USSR. Though Russia has rebounded, they still lack the critical mass that they once had as a super power. China though, with its billion people, and “Tiger Mother” nature, has swiftly garnered the hard and soft powers that it sees as necessary to being “the” superpower.
Where the USSR used to take more of a hard power stance with their military might, and a second seat KGB soft power espionage plan, the Chinese went the other way and saw the soft power attack as the way to go, even with a billion people as potential military recruits. Gone were the days of Mao and the hard power of the Chinese military, instead, the Chinese would lull the West into somnambulance and stealthily acquire superpower status. A status that they are closer and closer to each day.
China now owns much of our debt here in the US. They have made business “alliances” that have allowed access to not only money, but also to control over supply chains as well as proprietary data. Data that they have obtained through many means, including the APT model that everyone is all worked up about now. In short, they have made multiple pronged attacks against other countries with subtlety with a means to an end of gaining control over other nation states that will not require military means to defeat them.
Sun Tzu would be pleased at their understanding of “The Art of War“
“For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
It is this that the general populace and many within the Infosec community seem to not understand. There is much more at work here than some industrial espionage on the likes of Pratt & Whitney for JSF engine data. The Chinese have far more subtle plans that include many other areas than just the Information Warfare (IW) of stealing plans for jets.
The Thousand Grains of Sand: 沙千粮谷类：
The Advanced Persistent Threat of China has been around for quite a long time. Before there was the Internet and the ease of just FTP’ing RAR files to Hong Kong, there was the “Thousand Grains of Sand” approach to espionage. The metaphor here is that China believes that each grain of sand is important as well as it is nearly impossible to tell one grain from the other in a macro-verse. China would approach spying, whether it be industrial or other, by not only sending people here directly as spies, but also to call upon those who still had family in China to become agents. They would either be rewarded, praised, or threatened not so subtly by the state to effect their complicity.
Espionage has three motivations as the saying goes for those who become spies;
I would add a fourth, “fear” in the case of China’s apparatus. Of course many other countries have used the honeytrap (aka swallows in China) to turn someone into a spy for them, but in China, the use of relatives has been prevalent too. By using all of these means though, the Chinese would insert their spies anywhere and everywhere, and they would be hard to find because they often were only taking small parts of the bigger picture and giving them to their handlers.
This too also became the modus operandi for the Advanced Persistent Threat that is the digital companion to old school espionage. By attacking many different systems and rooting them, they would have multiple launch points to exfiltrate data and keep a command and control over the compromised networks that they had worked hard at gaining entry to. One might even say that they are recruiting the employees of each and every target as unwilling spies by targeting them with spear-phishing attacks that keep their access ongoing.
It is by this method, that thousand grains of sand, they are able to parse the data into smaller RAR files with multiple access nodes and move the data out to their drop sites.
That is a thousand grains of sand that SIEM or IDS just can’t catch.
Threat Vectors: 威胁向量：
This brings me to the threat vectors that we all should consider where China is concerned:
- Economic Targets
- Military Targets
- Infrastructure Targets
- Supply Chain Targets
- Media Targets
- Industrial Base Targets
- The Patent Process and Bureau
- The Financial Systems (Stock Exchanges and Banking systems)
- Political Targets
All of these entities are targets for not only cyber attacks but also soft power attacks (business alliances and deals, monetary controls etc) Any influence that serves the ends of the Chinese will be used to their ends. This truly is subtle in many ways and has been overlooked for a long time by the US and the populace in general. It just seems like we don’t think along these lines. Perhaps it is an Eastern mindset, perhaps it’s the fact that generally, we in the west just don’t understand the game of ‘Go’
Putting this into the perspective of the information security and hacking community, this means that all of the companies out there who are not doing the due diligence on security are more than likely easy pickings for not only the average cracker from Ukraine, but also the Chinese, who may in fact be using the companies systems to steal their data or, to use as a drop point for others data being stolen. It is a fundamental lack of understanding of the complexities of network and information security that generally, in the US, seems to be a malaise, and we are only now catching on to.
In the case of the Chinese, they have worked very hard at developing the skill sets and assets to leverage this lack of comprehension on our part and overtake and continue to infest systems here that they wish to exploit.
The Cyber War: 该网络战争：
Another fact that seems to be missing from the news cycle is that the APT/TGOF (Thousand Grains of Sand) approach that the Chinese have been using not only covers theft of data, but alternatively just having access to systems that they could use as a precursor to war or during an event. Such networks within the DoD (NIPRNET/SIPRNET) could be very useful in delaying supply chains from functioning well and or, inserting false data into them as a ruse or IW/PSYOP device to hobble the US military.
For that matter, the use this type of attack against any critical infrastructure would be a boon to deter if not outright stop the US from action against China should something erupt say, in Taiwan. By shutting down sections of the US power grid or other major areas of infrastructure, the Chinese or any other state actor, would have great leverage to give the US pause. If anything, the arrival of Stuxnet and the aftermath should at least give us something to think about as possibilities go. Some may say its inconceivable that such an attack could work or happen. Others though, would say that it is not so far fetched, especially given the machinations that China has shown to be attempting not only through network attacks, but also soft power attacks in political and economic vectors.
I will leave this topic with this question;
“How much of our technology today is made in China?”
All of this need not be involving anything near a war scenario either, they may just use these attacks to subtly manipulate the affected countries into actions that they desire. Soft power also means the ability to manipulate your target without really unhinging them. All of these attacks, whether they be full on or subtle will serve to affect the outcome of any military engagement without ever having to fire a shot. A well planned and executed plan could in fact win the war before it even begins. Of course on the other hand, these attacks could just be used as a first stage to a series of kinetic attacks by the agressor (i.e. cyber attacks in tandem with physical IED’s at critical sites for maximum effect and destruction)
Any way you look at it, unless we get our collective act together here in the ever increasingly networked world we live in, we will be at a great disadvantage, especially against such an aggressor as China.
Meet The Players: 满足玩家：
To bring this article full circle, I will now give you the known and suspected state actors that may have been running operations such as Aurora. The Chinese were ahead of the game in connecting not only with the People’s Liberation Army, but also the nascent hacker communities in their country. Using a combination of leveraging companies like Huawei to tap into their technical staff and the patriotism on the part of the PLA and the hacker communities, China has forged a solid directorate for electronic warfare and espionage.
The Chinese Military (PLA) —–> Leverage many corporations that the military actually has majority stock in to gain access to technology and assets
The Chinese Hacker Community —-> Sell and work for the PLA creating 0day and performing hacks for money as well as patriotism
Chinese Corporations —-> Often used as cutouts to gain access economically and intelligence wise to assets in other countries
Often, the corporations, which are many times, sponsored or majority owned by the PLA are the training grounds and the operative section for soft power operations for China. By using financial deals and alliances, China often attempts to gain the upper hand by having assets connections inside of companies that they wish to affect or to steal from. No longer is it needed to install spies within when the company is partially owned or has access granted because they are working “together”
It is the Chinese hacking community that is of most interest to many in my field however. Many of these people are still in universities and are often times motivated by their nationalistic tendencies ostensibly. Some of these groups have become actual companies producing security software or offering security services. Of course they are still likely to be assets for the PLA and probably the tip of the spear operators for China in operations. The reason for this simply would be that they are expendable in the sense of hacking as a nation state would cause international issues. Hacking as a hacking group though could be seen as their own initiative and they could be burned without losing face.
Within this amalgam of groups we then see the attack “teams” who crack the systems, then other teams perform recon, and still others, keep the access open and retrieve data. All in all, they have a slick operation and we would be wise to pay attention to how they operate.
I’m Afraid Our Lunch Has Already Been Eaten: 我怕我们的午餐已经被吃掉了：
So it is that I end here with the title above. I think that we have become too lax in our stint as a superpower and frankly have dropped the ball. Our companies are unmotivated to do the right thing where security is concerned. Our government is clueless on how to deal with the technologies and overly ossified in it’s operations to even cut a budget for the country without nearly closing down. America has to collectively come to the conclusion that not only does China own much of our debt, but they have outplayed us continually in the game of soft power.
All too much of our infrastructure is unprotected while much too much of our manufacturing and R&D has gone out of the country.
In short, our lunch is being eaten and the Chinese also want our milk money. Unless we rectify things our time as a superpower are numbered.. In single digits. Meanwhile, the vendors out there and the media keep on spinning half tales and misinforming the public. We are on a verge here.. And it’s time to get our act together.