Security experts at 401TRG, the threat research and analysis team at ProtectWise, have discovered links between several Chinese APT groups under the Winnti umbrella.

The experts analyzed several campaigns conducted by the cyber espionage groups over the last years and associated their activities with the Chinese Government, in one case the nation-state actor was working from the Xicheng District of Beijing.

According to the report published by ProtectWise, various threat groups previously attributed to Chinese-speaking actors are all linked to Chinese Intelligence and are referenced as ‘Winnti umbrella.’

“These operations and the groups that perform them are all linked to the Winnti umbrella and operate under the Chinese state intelligence apparatus.” reads the report.

“The Chinese intelligence apparatus has been reported on under many names, including Winnti, PassCV, APT17, Axiom, LEAD, BARIUM, Wicked Panda, and GREF.”

The experts believe that under the Winnti umbrella there are several APT groups, including  Winnti, Gref, PlayfullDragon, APT17, DeputyDog, Axiom, BARIUM, LEADPassCV, Wicked Panda, and ShadowPad. The groups show similar tactics, techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) and in some cases shared portions of the same hacking infrastructure.

“We assess with medium to high confidence that the various operations described in this report are the work of individual teams, including contractors external to the Chinese government, with varying levels of expertise, cooperating on a specific agenda.” continues the report.

The APT groups have been active since at least 2009 and initially targeted organizations in the gaming sector and high-tech firms in the United States, Japan, South Korea and China. The main targets of the Winnti umbrella are political, such as Uyghur and Tibetan activists, Tibetan and Chinese journalists, the government of Thailand and major international tech companies.

“The primary goal of these attacks was likely to find code-signing certificates for signing future malware. The secondary goals of the attackers depended on the type of victim organization, but were often financial.” reads the report.

The Winnti umbrella attackers are very active, one of the most recent phishing campaigns, uncovered in March, targeted at Office 365 and Gmail accounts instead delivering a malware.

Winnti Umbrella

In general, hackers aim to obtain credentials to a victim’s cloud storage that could be used for attacks later in presence of valueless cloud storage.

According to the report, the attribution of the attack was possible thanks to some opsec mistakes.

“However, we have observed a few cases of the attackers mistakenly accessing victim machines without a proxy, potentially identifying the true location of the individual running the session. In all of these cases, the net block was 221.216.0.0/13, the China Unicom Beijing Network, Xicheng District.”

“the Winnti umbrella and its associated entities remain an advanced and potent threat. We hope that the information contained within this report will help defenders thwart this group in the future.” concluded the report.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Winnti umbrella, Chinese APTs)

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