Beijing-backed gang looted IP around the world for years, claims Cybereason

Infosec outfit says group avoided detection by hiding payloads in undocumented Windows logs


Infosec outfit Cybereason says it's discovered a multi-year – and very successful – Chinese effort to steal intellectual property.

The company has named the campaign "Operation CuckooBees" and attributed it, with a high degree of confidence, to a Beijing-backed advanced persistent threat-slinger going by Winnti – aka APT 41, BARIUM, and Blackfly.

Whatever the group is called, it uses several strains of malware and is happy to construct complex chains of activity. In the attack Cybereason claims to have spotted, Winnti starts by finding what Cybereason has described as "a popular ERP solution" that had "multiple vulnerabilities, some known and some that were unknown at the time of the exploitation."

Once ERP was compromised, Winnti sought out a file named gthread-3.6.dll, which can be found in the VMware Tools folder. The DLL was used to inject other payloads into svchost.exe, with installation of a webshell and credential dumping tools high on the crims' to-do list.

Cybereason's technical deep dive into Winnti's techniques details many efforts to hide its activities.

Among the crew's techniques employs the Common Log File System (CLFS) present in Windows Server, as it uses an undocumented file format that can be accessed through APIs but can't be parsed. That makes CLFS data a fine place to hide payloads. Cybereason says Winnti did so, and was able to evade detection for years – the firm suggests Operation CuckooBees commenced in 2019 and went undetected until 2021, thanks largely to its use of CLFS and other sophisticated techniques to hide.

"With years to surreptitiously conduct reconnaissance and identify valuable data, it is estimated that the group managed to exfiltrate hundreds of gigabytes of information," the firm opines. "The attackers targeted intellectual property developed by the victims, including sensitive documents, blueprints, diagrams, formulas, and manufacturing-related proprietary data," Cybereason's analysis adds.

The firm asserts that the attacks focused on "technology and manufacturing companies mainly in East Asia, Western Europe, and North America." Global tech and manufacturing hotspots all.

The USA and other nations credibly accuse China of conducting or at least turning a blind eye to industrial espionage campaigns. Cybereason's analysis of Winnti's attacks techniques suggests they required a lot of resources to create and operate, and were likely the result of Beijing's espionage efforts.

Cybereason has shared its analysis with the FBI. ®

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