A new report by PwC UK and BAE Systems has revealed a sophisticated cyber campaign “of unprecedented size and scale” targeting managed IT service providers (MSPs). The campaign, dubbed Operation Cloud Hopper, was motivated by espionage and information gathering, as evidenced by the attackers’ choice of high value and low profile targets.
The authors of the report were able to conclude that Operation Cloud Hopper is almost certainly the work of a previously known group called APT10. The APT10 group is already well known in the world of cybersecurity, and it is a widely held view that it is based in China.
Using forensic analysis of operational times and IP zones, the authors of the report were able to conclude with a high level of certainty the identity of the group, their location in China, and the extent of the campaign. They were even able to sketch a portrait of their workday, including “a two hour lunch break”.
“Operating alone, none of us would have joined the dots to uncover this new campaign of indirect attacks,” Richard Horne, cyber security partner at PwC, recently told the BBC.
APT10 appears to be a well-staffed, highly organized operation with extensive logistical resources. According to the report, the group uses a variety of customized open-source software, original bespoke malware, and spear phishing techniques to infiltrate their targets’ systems.
Their strategy of choosing MSPs as a primary target has given them “unprecedented potential access to the intellectual property and sensitive data of those MSPs and their clients globally,” according to the report. “Given the level of client network access MSPs have, once APT10 has gained access to a MSP, it is likely to be relatively straightforward to exploit this and move laterally onto the networks of potentially thousands of other victims.”
Luis Corrons, technical director of PandaLabs, points out that carefully selecting targets, and customizing attacks accordingly, is more common every day. “Aside from the myriads of common cyberattacks businesses regularly have to deal with, nowadays we are witnessing huge increases in the amount of attacks in which cybercriminals are actually inside their victim’s network, adapting to his defenses and carrying out strikes with surgical precision as they target specific assets,” wrote Mr. Corrons in an email.
The Cloud Hopper campaign comes at a time when geopolitical tensions are increasingly crossing over into the realm of cyberespionage and cyberwarfare. Though the report does not openly suggest that there was any involvement on the part of the Chinese government, it does point out that the targeting of diplomatic and political organizations, as well as certain companies, “is closely aligned with strategic Chinese interests.”
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