The Dragon and Eagle: China’s Rise from Hacking To Digital Espionage
黑客 Transliteration into English ‘Dark Visitor’, more specifically in our colloquial language ‘Hacker’ The Dark Visitor movement of the 1990’s has morphed into a more sophisticated and government connected espionage wing today. What was once a loosely affiliated group of patriotic hackers, has been honed by the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) into a force to be reckoned with on the stage of digital espionage and data theft.
Back in the latter 1990’s the Internet made its way to China and soon hackers began to see how the system worked. These hackers were curious about systems to start, but soon the motives changed in the Chinese hacker community due to patriotism and the inherent nature of the Chinese culture, to feel that they could avenge their country for perceived sleights by hacking web pages and defacing them. It was in 1997 that the first hacker collective was formed and named the “Green Army” and in 1998, the “Red Hacker Alliance” was formed after an Indonesian incident involving riots against the Chinese caused them to band together.
Over time, many groups would form and dissipate only to re-form. The groups would have various reasons to go on campaigns of hacking against other countries like Taiwan over political issues and the like, but it seemed for the most part the general aegis was just to hack. A change though came in the 2000’s when commercialism started to come to play. It seems that as in the West, the hackers began to see that their skills could be put to use to make money, and many of them began working as security consultants. As with the country itself, commercialisation that Deng Xiaoping had put into play with his ‘market economy’ afforded them the idea of not just being politic but also in some ways, Capitalist.
From the “Dark Visitor” by Scott Henderson its a good albeit short read on the subject. You can buy it on his site I think..
The paradigm however has changed a bit since 2005 and since, more of the hacking and the groups doing it have dual motives. Due to the PLA co-opting the hacker groups, a healthy dose of patriotism, and the general socio-political environment that the Chinese live in today, we now have both forces at work. The political and the market driven.
Motivations for APT Attacks:
Since the market economy’s beginning with Deng, China has brought itself up out of the depths that the Mao government dragged them into a burgeoning super power. Most of this economic feat has been driven by the sheer ability of the Chinese to throw immense amounts of workforce at problems. While producing cheaper and perhaps lower quality goods, they have plaid upon the capitalist nature of the west to pivot themselves into the controlling seat economically and production wise. America and other countries have locked on to the idea that hiring out to foreign workers (outsourcing) they are saving a lot on their bottom line. As well, the consumer, be they American or other, have enjoyed the advantages of cheaper products, thus they save more money on their purchases, and thus have more disposable income.
This model however has one flaw for the Chinese. While the Chinese have great skill in replicating technologies, and have created clever contracts that in the end, garner them all of the specs on how to make just about everything, they lack in the area of generating new technologies. This is the basis for their efforts within the industrial espionage area that make up quite a great number of the persistent attacks on companies in the West that have succeeded in stealing IP. It seems that the Chinese need for political status as well as economic status have created the perfect incubator for the likes of the Honker Union or the Green Army, to turn their efforts toward making China a complete superpower.
State vs. Non State Actors:
The lines between the state actor and the non state are very much blurred in China. Due to the culture, many of the hackers work together for the common goal of the state. Since 2001 though, the notion of the state actor has been more common since the PLA began to incorporate the hackers into their ranks as well as to begin training programs at universities like the Chengdu University of Technology, which, just happens to be situated within the province where the first directorate of cyber intelligence resides.
There are certainly likely to be other hackers or groups also working for themselves selling 0day and the like, but I can also envision that certain state actors might also want in on that action as well. How better to control some of the malware out there than to actually create it and sell it? Either way, the notion of separating state and non state actors in China has pretty much been a non starter for me when looking into this issue.
In the end, they all are state actors I think just by the nature of the regime.
In the beginning, the Chinese hackers were just defacing pages, but after Cult of the Dead Cow created Back Orifice, the face of hacking changed. Huang Xin
took note and created the first Chinese trojan ‘glacier‘ since then, it’s been an ever increasing world of trojans and means to get the users of systems to install them. As time progressed, and hackers had to deal with more security measures (i.e. firewalls) they all began to use guile to get the end user to do the work for them. Over the years the Chinese have gotten much better at crafting decent emails that will not ring alarm bells in users heads. These emails and exploits are what we now call ‘phishing‘
Additionally, the Chinese have honed the attacks to not only be sly but also they have added a very regimented structure of keeping access to the networks they have compromised. Through thorough placement of further back doors as well as creating custom code to apply to applications inside of their target infrastructures, they have managed to keep the access that they desire to exfiltrate data at their own pace. Using multiple nodes within a compromised network, they will just shrug and move on to another compromised node once they have been discovered and stopped on the original. THIS is the true meaning of “Advanced Persistent Threat” and for me it’s mostly on the persistence that the emphasis should be kept.
Recent events with Lockheed have moved me to write this blog post as well as begin a series of them on the Chinese hacking community today. My initial searches online have provided all too much data and it admittedly has me overwhelmed. This I decided to parse this all out. I wanted to cover the history, motivations, and means today. Soon I will be writing more about infrastructure and methodologies to try and give a map so to speak, of what we are dealing with as the Chinese continue to use those ‘Thousand Grains of Sand‘ against us.
But, just to give you a taste of what I am seeing… Here is just one site that I did a relational link search on: