The United States and four of its Western allies on Wednesday accused a Chinese-sponsored “cyber actor” of quietly infiltrating American “critical infrastructure”. They also warned that similar campaigns could take place in the whole world.
In a joint advisory, cybersecurity authorities in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand warned of a malicious “group of activities” ociated with “a cyber- state-sponsored actor of the People’s Republic of China, also known as Volt Typhoon”. “This activity affects the networks of critical infrastructure sectors of the United States” and the entity leading the attack “could apply the same techniques (…) throughout the world”, add the administrations of these countries whose the intelligence services are bound by an agreement that earned them the nickname Five Eyes (five eyes, in French).
In a separate press release, the American group Microsoft explained that “Volt Typhoon” has been active since mid-2021 and that it has targeted, among other things, essential infrastructure on the island of Guam, which hosts a major American military base. in the Pacific Ocean. This campaign risks “disrupting critical communications infrastructure between the United States and the Asian region in future crises,” Microsoft warned.
“Living off the land”, a stealth hacking technique
The campaign targets “the communications, industrial, utility, transportation, construction, marine, government, information technology and education sectors,” the technology group continued. American. According to him, “the observed behavior suggests that the threat actor intends to spy and maintain access. (to infrastructure) undetected for as long as possible.
According to Western security agencies, these attacks notably use the so-called “Living off the land” (LotL) tactic, whereby the attacker uses the characteristics and tools of the system he is targeting to penetrate inside without leave traces. In particular, the attacker can use legitimate administrative tools to enter the system and insert malicious scripts or code. This type of intrusion is much more effective than those using malware, which are more easily detectable.
According to Microsoft, Volt Typhoon tries to blend in with normal network activity by routing traffic through infected network equipment in small businesses and remote workers, including routers, firewalls and private networks virtual (VPN). “They have also been observed using customized versions of open-source tools,” Microsoft said.
Make the attack public to better prepare for it
The Director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Jen Easterly, also issued a warning against Volt Typhoon. “For years, China has conducted operations around the world to steal intellectual property and sensitive data from critical infrastructure organizations,” she said. “The notice released today, in conjunction with our U.S. and international partners, shows that China is using highly sophisticated means to target our nation’s critical infrastructure,” she continued. According to her, this notice “will allow network defenders to better understand how to detect and mitigate this malicious activity”.
China regularly denies carrying out or sponsoring cyberattacks, and in turn accuses the United States of cyberespionage against it. “It is clear that this is a collective disinformation campaign by the Five Eyes coalition countries, initiated by the United States for geopolitical purposes,” said Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs.
China and Russia have long targeted critical infrastructure, but Volt Typhoon has provided insight into the modus operandi of Chinese hacking, said John Hultquist, an analyst at US cybersecurity firm Mandiant. “Chinese cyber threat actors are unique among their peers in that they do not routinely resort to destructive and disruptive cyber attacks,” he said. According to him, the disclosure by Western countries of the actions of Volt Typhoon “is a rare opportunity to investigate and prepare for this threat”.