A group of China-based cyber spies have begun targeting national security think tanks, initially targeting analysts focusing on the Asia-Pacific region before switching their focus to Iraq.
Infosec threat intelligence firm CrowdStrike warns that a group it dubs Deep Panda has begun targeting think tanks, particularly those focused on the political and economics machinations of China and the Asia-Pacific regions.
The hacking crew - which previously targeted government, defence, financial, legal, and the telecommunications industries over the last three years - is using custom (largely .NET) malware and malicious power-shell scripts to hack into targeted networks.
These malware and spear-phishing-type attacks may be aimed at getting onto systems used by government officials and politicians, as well as serving as an end in themselves.
"Think tanks face some of the most advanced nation-state adversaries because the individuals who are typically targeted at these institutions tend to be former senior government officials who still have many contacts within Western governments and, as such, their private correspondence is of extreme interest to these attackers," a blog post by CrowdStrike explains.
Over the last week or so the hacking crew has switched its focus and begun targeting individuals with a tie to Iraq/Middle East issues in preference to those chewing over South East Asia policy formation.
"CrowdStrike believes DEEP PANDA knew exactly which users to target at the think tanks based on their research policy area because they rapidly pivoted from China/Asia Pacific policy experts to Iraq/Middle East policy experts once their tasking collection requirements changed," the security intelligence firm adds.
The switch in targets is being driven by geo-political events, claim the researchers.
“This is undoubtedly related to the recent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) takeover of major parts of Iraq and the potential disruption for major Chinese oil interests in that country," CrowdStrike explains. "In fact, Iraq happens to be the fifth-largest source of crude oil imports for China and the country is the largest foreign investor in Iraq’s oil sector."
"Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Chinese government is highly interested in getting a better sense of the possibility of deeper U.S. military involvement that could help protect the Chinese oil infrastructure in Iraq,” adds CrowdStrike. “In fact, the shift in targeting of Iraq policy individuals occurred on June 18, the day that ISIS began its attack on the Baiji oil refinery.” ®