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Tuesday, 07 April 2020 10:45

Kaspersky veteran pours cold water on Chinese group's APT claims Featured

Brian Bartholomew:  "Not saying they’re wrong, but in the future, there needs to be more supporting data to support claims." Brian Bartholomew: "Not saying they’re wrong, but in the future, there needs to be more supporting data to support claims." Supplied

Veteran security researcher Brian Bartholomew has cast doubt on claims made about attacks by a nation-state backed group on a Chinese VPN provider whose software was used by the Beijing government and its overseas agencies. The allegations were made by Chinese security firm 360 Core Security (Qihoo Security) in a blog post on 6 April.

In its post, Qihoo claimed that malicious files were being delivered to Chinese organisations abroad through hijacked SangFor VPN server installations. It named the advanced persistent threat group behind the attacks as Darkhotel aka APT-C-06, adding that it was based on the Korean Peninsula.

The Qihoo researchers pointed out that the alleged attacks had come at a time when there was a massive increase in VPN use because of the coronavirus pandemic, with the obvious inference being that the raids had been staged to affect Chinese companies as they were slowly trying to resume work after a lockdown.

"As we already know, the core of remote telecommuting is VPN. This also means that once the VPN vulnerability is exploited by a hacker, the whole unit using VPN for remote working is undoubtedly exposed to predictable risks," the Qihoo researchers claimed.

But Bartholomew, a senior staffer at Russian security outfit Kaspersky, said the blog post by Qihoo was full of speculation.

"[There is] no evidence this was actually Darkhotel and [there is] a ton of confirmation bias about targeting because of COVID-19," he said in a tweet.

"Not saying they’re wrong, but in the future, there needs to be more supporting data to support claims."

In its post, Qihoo described Darkhotel as an APT gang that operated from East Asia. "[It] is behind a long-running series of cyberespionage-focused campaigns against corporate executives, government agencies, defence industry, electronics industry and other important sectors," the Qihoo researchers said.

"Its footprints in the cyber realm are all over China, North Korea, Japan, Myanmar, Russia and other countries. Their operations can be traced back to as early as 2007."

Qihoo said the attack had been through updates issued by SangFor, with the update program having been replaced by a backdoored version.

It claimed Chinese agencies were attacked in Italy, the UK, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Thailand, the UAE, Armenia, North Korea, Israel, Vietnam, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and India.

Qihoo is a prominent Chinese research firm, often publishing posts on various vulnerabilities. In March, it attracted attention for making the unusual claim that a group known as APT-C-39, which it claimed was affiliated to the US Central Intelligence Agency, had been hacking into Chinese Government agencies and companies over the last 11 years.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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