Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups

Part 2: APT Analysis

Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups are a collection of people who receive support and guidance from an established nation state. APT groups are known to generally follow the same pattern as other cyber criminals such as stealing information, disrupting operations, or destroying critical infrastructure (Eye, 2019). APT groups tend to perform their activity over a matter of months or years, which is very different from other cyber criminals. They are also known to adapt to specific cyber defensive measures and repeatedly target the same victim (Eye, 2019). When APT groups find evidence of malware used in previous APT group attacks, they tend to attempt another attack using upgraded malware. APT 12, who is also known as DynCalc or Calc Team, is a well-known cyber espionage group that is believed to be based out of China. The actions and the targets of this group tend to align with the People’s Republic of China’s goals. APT 12 also has been linked to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Evidence has been uncovered that leads people to believe that APT12 retools operations after it has been exposed to the media. This group is known as “Darwin’s Favorite APT Group” because similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the group has been required to evolve and acclimate in order to maintain its mission (Moran & Oppenheim, 2014). APT12 is known to typically deploy phishing emails from valid, but compromised, email accounts to infect a computer with malware. The malware that they employed from October 2012 throughout May 2014 is known as RIPTIDE. This type of malware is a proxy-aware backdoor that communicates via HTTP to a hard-coded command and control server (Moran & Oppenheim, 2014). The initial communication with the server will retrieve an encryption key. The key is then used to encrypt all further communications. In October 2012, APT12 used RIPTIDE to exploit the New York Times after one of their journalists published an article pertaining to the secret wealth of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao 8 (FlorCruz, 2013). APT12 attacked the New York Times for months via RIPTIDE and obtained employee passwords and the email information of Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza. APT12 eventually modified RIPTIDE to target systems using a Microsoft Word document to exploit systems without being detected via RIPTIDE notifiers, renaming it to HIGHTIDE. The motivation for the modifications to the RIPTIDE malware is suspected to be due to a blog post about RIPTIDE detection by security teams.

HIGHTIDE was first detected in August 2014 when a spear phish email was sent to a Taiwanese government ministry (Moran & Oppenheim, 2014). The spear phish email held a Microsoft Word document which contained malicious content that exploited the system. This HIGHTIDE backdoor to the system was placed to exploit CVE-2012-0158 via a Microsoft Word document, much like RIPTIDE, but it bypassed all of the prior known detections of RIPTIDE. The email that contained the malware was apparently sent from another Taiwanese Government employee, leading to the evidence that the account was compromised. This attack was deemed a success, as they infiltrated the system for half of the month of August. In August of 2014, a different spear phish email was sent to a technology company in Taiwan using the THREEBYTE malware (Moran & Oppenheim, 2014). This incident shared many of the same characteristics of the HIGHTIDE attack. The similarities and characteristics of both attacks include: the THREEBYTE backdoor was compiled two days after the HIGHTIDE backdoors, both the THREEBYTE and HIGHTIDE backdoors were used in attacks targeting organizations in Taiwan, both the THREEBYTE and HIGHTIDE backdoors were written to the same file path of C:\DOCUMENTS and SETTINGS\{user}\LOCAL SETTINGS\Temp\word.exe., and APT12 has previously used the THREEBYTE backdoor (Moran & Oppenheim, 2014). Also, in August 2014, another round of spear phishing e-mails were sent to target a technology organization 9 within Japan using WATERSPOUT backdoor. WATERSPOUT backdoor, similar to RIPTIDE and HIGHTIDE, is an HTTP based backdoor that communication with the hard-coded command and control server (Moran & Oppenheim, 2014). APT12 conducts operational attacks against journalists, governments, and defense industrial bases with a high rate of success. They will continue to evolve and adapt its tactics in order to stay ahead of network defenders. The successful use of RIPTIDE has changed and evolved to the manufacture and use of WATERSPOUT backdoor to avoid detection and to continue exploiting targets for information to reach their goals.



FlorCruz, M. (2013) China’s APT-12, The Entity That May Be Behind The New York Times Hack. Retrieved from

Moran, N. & Oppenheim, M. (2014). Darwin’s Favorite APT Group. Retrieved from

Eye, F. (2019). Advanced Persistent Threat Groups | FireEye. Retrieved from

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