Chinese espionage group targets Israel while suggesting the source could be Iran

FireEye says Israeli defense agencies were alert to compromises as China works to protect Belt and Road investments


Security vendor FireEye says it has spotted a Chinese espionage group that successfully compromised targets within Israel, and that trying to make its efforts look like the work of Iranian actors is part of the group's modus operandi.

A FireEye blog post states the Chinese activity has been ongoing since 2019, when a group it names "UNC215" used the Microsoft SharePoint vulnerability CVE-2019-0604 "to install web shells and FOCUSFJORD payloads at targets in the Middle East and Central Asia".

"In addition to data from Mandiant Incident Response and FireEye telemetry, we worked with Israeli defense agencies to review data from additional compromises of Israeli entities," the post states. "This analysis showed multiple, concurrent operations against Israeli government institutions, IT providers and telecommunications entities beginning in January 2019."

UNC215 changed tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) through its ongoing campaign, but is consistently fond of installing web shells and attacking Exchange and Outlook Web Access, and has been observed stealing credentials to go about its unpleasant work.

"After identifying key systems within the target network, such as domain controllers and Exchange servers, UNC215 moved laterally and deployed their signature malware FOCUSFJORD," wrote FireEye's security team. "UNC215 often uses FOCUSFJORD for the initial stages of an intrusion, and then later deploys HYPERBRO, which has more information collection capabilities such as screen capture and keylogging."

The group also tries to cover its tracks by erasing its malware, but can also be brazen and re-use code or revisit victims.

On one occasion FireEye observed "an operator repeatedly and infrequently revisited a compromised network whenever an Endpoint Detection and Response tool detected or quarantined tools like HYPERBRO and Mimikatz. After several months of repeated detections, UNC215 deployed an updated version of HYPERBRO, and a tool called 'anti.exe' to stop Windows Update service and terminate EDR and Antivirus related services."

UNC215 also lays a false breadcrumb trail to Iran, using its official Farsi language in some strings. Some file paths include directories named /Iran.

FireEye has no hesitation attributing the group's activities to "China's consistent strategic interest in the Middle East.

"This cyber espionage activity is happening against the backdrop of China's multi-billion-dollar investments related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its interest in Israel’s robust technology sector," the post states.

"China has conducted numerous intrusion campaigns along the BRI route to monitor potential obstructions – political, economic, and security – and we anticipate that UNC215 will continue targeting governments and organizations involved in these critical infrastructure projects in Israel and the broader Middle East in the near- and mid-term."

All of which leaves one of the the world's flashiest flashpoints dealing with ongoing Chinese offensive cyber ops on top of its myriad other geopolitical complexities.

What a time to be alive. ®

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