Security researchers say they found evidence that a Chinese government-linked hacking group has been bypassing two-factor authentication (2FA) in a recent wave of attacks.
The attacks have been attributed to a group the cyber-security industry is tracking as APT20, believed to operate on the behest of the Beijing government, Dutch cyber-security firm Fox-IT said in a report published last week.
The group’s primary targets were government entities and managed service providers (MSPs). The government entities and MSPs were active in fields like aviation, healthcare, finance, insurance, energy, and even something as niche as gambling and physical locks.
Recent APT20 activity
The Fox-IT report comes to fill in a gap in the group’s history. APT20’s hacking goes back to 2011, but researchers lost track of the group’s operations in 2016-2017, when they changed their mode of operation.
Fox-IT’s report documents what the group has been doing over the past two years and how they’ve been doing it.
According to researchers, the hackers used web servers as the initial point of entry into a target’s systems, with a particular focus on JBoss, an enterprise application platform often found in large corporate and government networks.
APT20 used vulnerabilities to gain access to these servers, install web shells, and then spread laterally through a victim’s internal systems.
While on the inside, Fox-IT said the group dumped passwords and looked for administrator accounts, in order to maximize their access. A primary concern was obtaining VPN credentials, so hackers could escalate access to more secure areas of a victim’s infrastructure, or use the VPN accounts as more stable backdoors.
Fox-IT said that despite what appears to be a very prodigious hacking activity over the past two years, “overall the actor has been able to stay under the radar.”
They did so, researchers explain, by using legitimate tools that were already installed on hacked devices, rather than downloading their own custom-built malware, which could have been detected by local security software.
APT20 seen bypassing 2FA
But this wasn’t the thing that stood out the most in all the attacks the Dutch security firm investigated. Fox-IT analysts said they found evidence the hackers connected to VPN accounts protected by 2FA.
How they did it remains unclear; although, the Fox-IT team has their theory. They said APT20 stole an RSA SecurID software token from a hacked system, which the Chinese actor then used on its computers to generate valid one-time codes and bypass 2FA at will.
Normally, this wouldn’t be possible. To use one of these software tokens, the user would need to connect a physical (hardware) device to their computer. The device and the software token would then generate a valid 2FA code. If the device was missing, the RSA SecureID software would generate an error.
The Fox-IT team explains how hackers might have gone around this issue:
The software token is generated for a specific system, but of course this system specific value could easily be retrieved by the actor when having access to the system of the victim.
As it turns out, the actor does not actually need to go through the trouble of obtaining the victim’s system specific value, because this specific value is only checked when importing the SecurID Token Seed, and has no relation to the seed used to generate actual 2-factor tokens. This means the actor can actually simply patch the check which verifies if the imported soft token was generated for this system, and does not need to bother with stealing the system specific value at all.
In short, all the actor has to do to make use of the 2 factor authentication codes is to steal an RSA SecurID Software Token and to patch 1 instruction, which results in the generation of valid tokens.
Fox-IT said it was able to investigate APT20’s attacks because they were called in by one of the hacked companies to help investigate and respond to the hacks.
More on these attacks can be found in a report named “Operation Wocao.”
The Dutch company said it named the report “Wocao” after a response the Chinese hackers had after they’ve been detected and booted out of a victim’s network.
In the screenshot below, you can view APT20 trying to connect to a (now-removed) web shell they installed on a victim’s network.
The hackers try running several Windows commands. When the commands fail to execute, APT20 hackers understand they’ve been detected and thrown out of the network, and they type one last command in frustration — wocao, which is the Chinese slang for “shit” or “damn.”
Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise
This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.
Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.
In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.
CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions
Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.
Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.
“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”
As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.
Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.
“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.
So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:
“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”
Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.
“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”
Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast
Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications
Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.
Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection
“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”
In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.
A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.
Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.
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