Taiwan has faced existential conflict with China for its entire existence and has been targeted by China’s state-sponsored hackers for years. But an investigation by one Taiwanese security firm has revealed just how deeply a single group of Chinese hackers was able to penetrate an industry at the core of the Taiwanese economy, pillaging practically its entire semiconductor industry.
At the Black Hat security conference today, researchers from the Taiwanese cybersecurity firm CyCraft plan to present new details of a hacking campaign that compromised at least seven Taiwanese chip firms over the past two years. The series of deep intrusions—called Operation Skeleton Key due to the attackers’ use of a “skeleton key injector” technique—appeared aimed at stealing as much intellectual property as possible, including source code, software development kits, and chip designs. And while CyCraft has previously given this group of hackers the name Chimera, the company’s new findings include evidence that ties them to mainland China and loosely links them to the notorious Chinese state-sponsored hacker group Winnti, also sometimes known as Barium, or Axiom.
“This is very much a state-based attack trying to manipulate Taiwan’s standing and power,” says Chad Duffy, one of the CyCraft researchers who worked on the company’s long-running investigation. The sort of wholesale theft of intellectual property CyCraft observed “fundamentally damages a corporation’s entire ability to do business,” adds Chung-Kuan Chen, another CyCraft researcher who will present the company’s research at Black Hat today. “It’s a strategic attack on the entire industry.”
The CyCraft researchers declined to tell WIRED the names of any victim companies. Some were CyCraft customers, while the firm analyzed other intrusions in cooperation with an investigative group known as the Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams. Several of the semiconductor company victims were headquartered at the Hsinchu Industrial Park, a technology hub in the Northwest Taiwanese city of Hsinchu.
The researchers found that in at least some cases, the hackers appeared to gain initial access to victim networks by compromising virtual private networks, though it wasn’t clear if they obtained credentials for that VPN access or if they directly exploited vulnerabilities in the VPN servers. The hackers then typically used a customized version of the penetration testing tool Cobalt Strike, disguising the malware they planted by giving it the same name as a Google Chrome update file. They also used a command-and-control server hosted on Google’s or Microsoft’s cloud services, making its communications harder to detect as anomalous.
From their initial access points, the hackers would attempt to move to other machines on the network by accessing databases of passwords protected with cryptographic hashing and attempting to crack them. Whenever possible, CyCraft’s analyst say, the hackers used stolen credentials and legitimate features available to users to move through the network and gain further access, rather than infect machines with malware that might reveal their fingerprints.
The most distinctive tactic that CyCraft found the hackers using repeatedly in the victims’ networks, however, was a technique to manipulate domain controllers, the powerful servers that set the rules for access in large networks. With a custom-built program that combined code from the common hacking tools Dumpert and Mimikatz, the hackers would create a new authorized user in the domain controller’s memory, a trick known as skeleton key injection. That newly created user would have access to machines across the company. “It’s like a skeleton key that lets them go anywhere,” Duffy says.
CyCraft quietly published most of these findings about Operation Skeleton Key in April of this year. But in its Black Hat talk, it plans to add several new findings that help to tie the hacking campaign to mainland China.
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