ASSESSMENT: Stephen Su aka Stephen SuBin aka Su Bin
Recent news shows that an arrest has been made in a Chinese industrial espionage campaign that started around 2009 and resulted in larger dumps of data being taken from Boeing as well as other defense base aligned companies. Stephen Su aka Stephen Subin aka Su Bin was arrested in Canada after an affidavit was put in by the FBI giving evidence that SuBin and two others had broken into Boeing and other companies stealing data on the C-17 as well as F22 Raptor and JSF projects.
While the affidavit says a lot in a roundabout way on what the FBI considered evidence for the arrest there is a gap in just how the FBI came upon this guy and his co-conspirators in the first place. There is no mention of what tip may have led the FBI to obtain the email records of SuBin at Gmail and Hotmail as well as it seems the emails of the UC1 and UC2 at Gmail as well. Perhaps the data came from something like Xkeyscore or PRISM? I don’t think that that is likely but one has to ask the question anyway.
Aside from that lack of genesis for the FBI investigation the affidavit is quite detailed as to the back and forth with the UC’s and SuBin. There are file names and screen shots of data that was passed back and forth as well as email addresses and snippets of the emails themselves. Of more note though is a timeline and a operational details that SuBin and his team were using in order to carry off the espionage and this is very interesting. SuBin and the team were taking a more hybrid approach to the industrial espionage that we commonly don’t get to see or hear about in the current throes of APT madness.
This case of espionage is different from the usual APT stories you hear today on the news. The reason for this is that the players here may or may not have ties back to those directorates and groups that APT come from. Or, they may not. The affidavit is unclear (perhaps deliberately so) on the two UC’s connections to any of the APT activities we have all heard about but they do use the same techniques that we have heard being used by APT actors.
What is different though is the use of human assets (i.e. SuBin) as a targeter for the hackers to hone in on specific files and architectures/companies/people. This is where this becomes more of a classic MSS (Ministry of State Security) operation than the ongoing attacks we have been seeing in the news since APT became a household term. Now, whether or not SuBin is actually a trained agent or just an asset is the sixty four thousand dollar question in my book. There are allegations in the affidavit that to me, looks like he could be either. Su talks about making money on the data he has been helping to steal which makes him look like a freelancer. Meanwhile there are other aspects that make it seem more like he is a true asset for MSS. I am still not quite sure myself and perhaps someday we will hear more on this from the FBI.
A common thread in much of the MSS’ (中华人民共和国国家安全部) playbook for industrial espionage is the use of human sources that are either naturalized citizens of another country. (i.e. Americans or in this case one who was about to be Canadian) In the case of SuBin, he had his own company in China that worked with wiring in airframes. This is a perfect cutout for the MSS to get an asset with access to Western companies that may be doing business with them. In the case of Lode-Tech (Su’s company) there was evidence from the 2009 documents (emails) that showed that his company was sharing space with Boeing at an expo which likely began this whole espionage exploit.
Now another fact that seems to emerge from the affidavit is that these guys were just using Gmail and other systems that are not the most secure. I do know that in some cases the APT also use these email systems but these guys seem to be pretty open with their exchanges back and forth. This to me means that they were not professional’s for the most part. I can come down on both sides here as well after having seen some of the flagrant OPSEC failures on the part of APT in the past. Generally though my feeling is that these guys were a little too loose with their OPSEC to be professional MSS operators and may in fact all have been contractors.
On the other hand though these guys had some tradecraft that they were following and these likely worked pretty well. In the image below you can see how they were hand carrying some data to Macao and Hong Kong in order to bypass certain “diplomatic issues” as they say. Additionally, the surveillance portion (which is the first time this has come up with the APT type of activity) has ever been mentioned. In the case of SuBin, he had access to Boeing itself (an assumption as none is directly mentioned in the affidavit) via his company ostensibly and thus had a presence that a hacker is lacking in remote APT activities.
So you can see how this is a hybrid operation and something we don’t often get to see. Could this be the new paradigm in industrial espionage? Frankly this is something I would have thought was going on all along given what I know of Chinese espionage as well as having done assessments in the past that included a physical attack portion. By synergizing the APT hacking with MSS old school tradecraft these guys were pretty successful (65 gig of targeted data from Boeing alone) and maximized insider knowledge of what to look for with technical hacking exploits. If you think about it how many companies do business with China? Now ponder how much access those companies may have to networks and people in those companies… Yeah.
These are tried and true practices on the part of the MSS as well as other intelligence agencies the world over so we have to pay attention to this stuff as well as worry about the common phishing emails that come in waves as well. Overall I think that the US needs to be a bit more self aware of all of these types of activities and methods to protect their environments but to do so I imagine will be a tough sell to most corporations.
Advanced Persistent Espionage:
What this all means is the following; “Industrial espionage doesn’t just mean APT phishing emails blindly coming at you. It also means that there may be actual people and companies that you are working with that are actively gathering your data for sale as well” Another recent incident involves Pratt & Whitney with a naturalized American Iranian who stole a lot of physical documents as well as seemingly had emailed data out of their environment to Iran as part of a sale. You have to remember it’s not just all electrons boys and girls.
However, the hybridization of the methods of APT and traditional tradecraft is just beginning. I think that the Chinese have seen the light so to speak and will start to leverage these things more as the US continues to put pressure on them concerning APT attacks. The MSS will get more and more cautious and work smarter as they continue to be persistent in their espionage activities. The Russians are already pretty good at this and they leverage both now. It’s time I guess that the Chinese have decided to look to their Russian friends and steal a bit from their playbook as well.