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APT41: A Dual Espionage and Cyber Crime Operation

Today, FireEye Intelligence is releasing a comprehensive report
  detailing APT41, a prolific Chinese cyber threat group that carries
  out state-sponsored espionage activity in parallel with financially
  motivated operations. APT41 is unique among tracked China-based actors
  in that it leverages non-public malware typically reserved for
  espionage campaigns in what appears to be activity for personal gain.
  Explicit financially-motivated targeting is unusual among Chinese
  state-sponsored threat groups, and evidence suggests APT41 has
  conducted simultaneous cyber crime and cyber espionage operations from
  2014 onward.


The full
    published report
 covers historical and ongoing activity
  attributed to APT41, the evolution of the group’s tactics, techniques,
  and procedures (TTPs), information on the individual actors, an
  overview of their malware toolset, and how these identifiers overlap
  with other known Chinese espionage operators. APT41 partially
  coincides with public reporting on groups including BARIUM (  href="">Microsoft)
  and Winnti (  href="">Kaspersky,


Who Does APT41 Target?


Like other Chinese espionage operators, APT41 espionage targeting
  has generally aligned with     href="">China's
    Five-Year economic development plans. The group has established
  and maintained strategic access to organizations in the healthcare,
  high-tech, and telecommunications sectors. APT41 operations against
  higher education, travel services, and news/media firms provide some
  indication that the group also tracks individuals and conducts
  surveillance. For example, the group has repeatedly targeted call
  record information at telecom companies. In another instance, APT41
  targeted a hotel’s reservation systems ahead of Chinese officials
  staying there, suggesting the group was tasked to reconnoiter the
  facility for security reasons.


The group’s financially motivated activity has primarily focused on
  the video game industry, where APT41 has manipulated virtual
  currencies and even attempted to deploy ransomware. The group is adept
  at moving laterally within targeted networks, including pivoting
  between Windows and Linux systems, until it can access game production
  environments. From there, the group steals source code as well as
  digital certificates which are then used to sign malware. More
  importantly, APT41 is known to use its access to production
  environments to inject malicious code into legitimate files which are
  later distributed to victim organizations. These supply chain
  compromise tactics have also been characteristic of APT41’s best known
  and most recent espionage campaigns.


Interestingly, despite the significant effort required to execute
  supply chain compromises and the large number of affected
  organizations, APT41 limits the deployment of follow-on malware to
  specific victim systems by matching against individual system
  identifiers. These multi-stage operations restrict malware delivery
  only to intended victims and significantly obfuscate the intended
  targets. In contrast, a typical spear-phishing campaign’s desired
  targeting can be discerned based on recipients' email addresses.


A breakdown of industries directly targeted by APT41 over time can
  be found in Figure 1.




 Figure 1: Timeline of industries directly
    targeted by APT41


Probable Chinese Espionage Contractors


Two identified personas using the monikers “Zhang Xuguang” and
  “Wolfzhi” linked to APT41 operations have also been identified in
  Chinese-language forums. These individuals advertised their skills and
  services and indicated that they could be hired. Zhang listed his
  online hours as 4:00pm to 6:00am, similar to APT41 operational times
  against online gaming targets and suggesting that he is moonlighting.
  Mapping the group’s activities since 2012 (Figure 2) also provides
  some indication that APT41 primarily conducts financially motivated
  operations outside of their normal day jobs.


Attribution to these individuals is backed by identified persona
  information, their previous work and apparent expertise in programming
  skills, and their targeting of Chinese market-specific online
  games. The latter is especially notable because APT41 has repeatedly
  returned to targeting the video game industry and we believe these
  activities were formative in the group’s later espionage operations.


 Figure 2: Operational activity for gaming
    versus non-gaming-related targeting based on observed operations
    since 2012


The Right Tool for the Job


APT41 leverages an arsenal of over 46 different malware families and
  tools to accomplish their missions, including publicly available
  utilities, malware shared with other Chinese espionage operations, and
  tools unique to the group. The group often relies on spear-phishing
  emails with attachments such as compiled HTML (.chm) files to
  initially compromise their victims. Once in a victim organization,
  APT41 can leverage more sophisticated TTPs and deploy additional
  malware. For example, in a campaign running almost a year, APT41
  compromised hundreds of systems and used close to 150 unique pieces of
  malware including backdoors, credential stealers, keyloggers, and rootkits.


APT41 has also deployed rootkits and Master Boot Record (MBR)
  bootkits on a limited basis to hide their malware and maintain
  persistence on select victim systems. The use of bootkits in
  particular adds an extra layer of stealth because the code is executed
  prior to the operating system initializing. The limited use of these
  tools by APT41 suggests the group reserves more advanced TTPs and
  malware only for high-value targets.


Fast and Relentless


APT41 quickly identifies and compromises intermediary systems that
  provide access to otherwise segmented parts of an organization’s
  network. In one case, the group compromised hundreds of systems across
  multiple network segments and several geographic regions in as little
  as two weeks.


The group is also highly agile and persistent, responding quickly to
  changes in victim environments and incident responder activity. Hours
  after a victimized organization made changes to thwart APT41, for
  example, the group compiled a new version of a backdoor using a
  freshly registered command-and-control domain and compromised several
  systems across multiple geographic regions. In a different instance,
  APT41 sent spear-phishing emails to multiple HR employees three days
  after an intrusion had been remediated and systems were brought back
  online. Within hours of a user opening a malicious attachment sent by
  APT41, the group had regained a foothold within the organization's
  servers across multiple geographic regions.


Looking Ahead


APT41 is a creative, skilled, and well-resourced adversary, as
  highlighted by the operation’s distinct use of supply chain
  compromises to target select individuals, consistent signing of
  malware using compromised digital certificates, and deployment of
  bootkits (which is rare among Chinese APT groups).


Like other Chinese espionage operators, APT41 appears to have moved
  toward strategic intelligence collection and establishing access and
  away from direct intellectual property theft since 2015. This shift,
  however, has not affected the group's consistent interest in targeting
  the video game industry for financially motivated reasons. The group's
  capabilities and targeting have both broadened over time, signaling
  the potential for additional supply chain compromises affecting a
  variety of victims in additional verticals.


APT41's links to both underground marketplaces and state-sponsored
  activity may indicate the group enjoys protections that enables it to
  conduct its own for-profit activities, or authorities are willing to
  overlook them. It is also possible that APT41 has simply evaded
  scrutiny from Chinese authorities. Regardless, these operations
  underscore a blurred line between state power and crime that lies at
  the heart of threat ecosystems and is exemplified by APT41.

Source: APT41: A Dual Espionage and Cyber Crime Operation