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German public broadcasters, Bavarian Radio & Television Network (BR) and Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), have published a joint investigation report on a hacker group spying on certain businesses since years. Security researchers, Hakan Tanriverdi, Svea Eckert, Jan Strozyk, Maximilian Zierer and Rebecca Ciesielski have contributed to this report. They shed light on how this group of hackers operate and how widespread they are.

The investigation started with one of the reporters receiving this code daa0 c7cb f4f0 fbcf d6d1 which eventually led to the team discovering a hacking group with Chinese origins operating on Winnti Malware.

BR and NDR reporters, in collaboration with several IT security experts, have analyzed the Winnti malware. Moritz Contag of Ruhr University Bochum extracted information from different varieties of the malware and wrote a script for this analysis. Silas Cutler, an IT security expert with US-based Chronicle Security, confirmed it. The report analyses cases from the below listed targeted companies:

  1. Gaming: Gameforge, Valve
  2. Software: Teamviewer
  3. Technology: Siemens, Sumitomo, Thyssenkrupp
  4. Pharma: Bayer, Roche
  5. Chemical: BASF, Covestro, Shin-Etsu

Hakan Tanriverdi one of the reporters wrote on Twitter, “We looked at more than 250 samples, wrote Yara rules, conducted nmap scans.” Yara rules is a tool primarily used in malware research and detection. Nmap is a free and open source network scanner used to discover hosts and services on a computer network. Additionally in the report, the team has presented ways to find out if one is infected by the Winnti malware. To learn about these methods in detail, check out the research report.

Winnti malware is complex, created by “digital mercenaries” of Chinese origin

Winnti is a highly complex structure that is difficult to penetrate. The term denotes both a sophisticated malware and an actual group of hackers. IT security experts like to call them digital mercenaries. According to a Kasperky Lab research held in 2011, the Winnti group has been active for several years and in their initial days, specialized in cyber-attacks against the online video game industry.

However, according to this investigation the hacker group has now honed in on Germany and its blue-chip DAX corporations. BR and NDR reporters analyzed hundreds of malware versions used for unsavory purposes. They found that the hacker group has targeted at least six DAX corporations and stock-listed top companies of the German industry.

In October 2016, several DAX corporations, including BASF and Bayer, founded the German Cyber Security Organization (DCSO). The job of DCSO’s IT security experts was to observe and recognize hacker groups like Winnti and to get to the bottom of their motives. In Winnti’s case, DCSO speaks of a “mercenary force” which is said to be closely linked with the Chinese government.

The reporters of this investigation also interviewed few company staff, IT security experts, government officials, and representatives of security authorities. An IT security expert who has been analyzing the attacks for years said, “Any DAX corporation that hasn’t been attacked by Winnti must have done something wrong.”

A high-ranking German official said to the reporters, “The numbers of cases are mind-boggling.” And claims that the group continues to be highly active—to this very day.

Winnti hackers are audacious and “don’t care if they’re found out”

The report points out that the hackers choose convenience over anonymity. Working with Moritz Contag the reporters found that the hackers wrote the names of the companies they want to spy on directly into their malware. Contag has analyzed more than 250 variations of the Winnti malware and found them to contain the names of global corporations.

According to reporters, hackers usually take precautions, which experts refer to as Opsec. But the Winnti group’s Opsec was dismal to say the least. Somebody who has been keeping an eye on Chinese hackers on behalf of a European intelligence service believes that they didn’t really care: “These hackers don’t care if they’re found out or not. They care only about achieving their goals.”

The reporters believed that every hacking operation leaves digital traces. They also believe that if you notice hackers carefully, each and every step can be logged. To decipher the traces of the Winnti hackers, they took a closer look at the program code of the malware itself. They used a malware research engine known as “VirusTotal” created by Google.

The hacker group initially attacked the gaming industry for financial gain

In the early days, the Winnti group of hackers were mainly interested in money making. Their initial target was Gameforge, a gaming company based in the German town of Karlsruhe. In 2011, an email message found its way into Gameforge’s mailbox. A staff member opened the attached file and unaware to him started the Winnti program. Shortly afterwards, the administrators became aware that someone was accessing Gameforge’s databases and raising the account balance.

Gameforge decided to implement Kaspersky antivirus software and  arranged for Kaspersky’s IT security experts to visit the office.The security experts found suspicious files and analyzed them. They noticed that the system had been infiltrated by hackers acting like Gameforge’s administrators. It turned out that the hackers had taken over a total of 40 servers.

“They are a very, very persistente group,” says Costin Raiu, who has been watching Winnti since 2011 and was in charge of Kaspersky’s malware analysis team. “Once the Winnti hackers are inside a network, they take their sweet time to really get a feel for the infrastructure,” he says.

The hackers will map a company’s network and look for strategically favorable locations for placing their malware. They keep tabs on which programs are used in a company and then exchange a file in one of these programs. The modified file looks like the original, but was secretly supplemented by a few extra lines of code. Thereafter the manipulated file does the attackers’ bidding.

Raiu and his team have been following the digital tracks left behind by some of the Winnti hackers. “Nine years ago, things were much more clear-cut. There was a single team, which developed and used Winnti. It now looks like there is at least a second group that also uses Winnti.” This view is shared by many IT security companies. And it is this second group which is getting the German security authorities worried. One government official says, “Winnti is very specific to Germany. It is the attacker group that’s being encountered most frequently.”

Second group of Winnti hackers focused on industrial espionage

The report says that by 2014, the Winnti malware code was no longer limited to game manufacturers. The second group’s job was mainly industrial espionage. Hackers targeted high-tech companies as well as chemical and pharmaceutical companies. They also attacked companies in Japan, France, the U.S. and Germany.

The report sheds light on how Winnti hackers broke into Henkel’s network in 2014. The reporters present three files containing the website belonging to Henkel and the name of the hacked server. For example, one starts with the letter sequence DEDUSSV. They realized that server names can be arbitrary, but it is highly probable that DE stands for Germany and DUS for Düsseldorf, where the Henkel headquarters are located. The hackers were able to monitor all activities running on the web server and reached systems which didn’t have direct internet access:

The company also confirmed the Winnti incident and issued the following statement: “The cyberattack was discovered in the summer of 2014 and Henkel promptly took all necessary precautions.” Henkel claims that a “very small portion” of its worldwide IT systems had been affected— the systems in Germany. According to Henkel, there was no evidence suggesting that any sensitive data had been diverted.

Other than Henkel, Winnti also targeted companies like Covestro, manufacturers of adhesives, lacquers and paints, Japan’s biggest chemical company, Shin-Etsu Chemical, Roche, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

Winnti hackers also penetrated the BASF and Siemens networks.

A BASF spokeswoman says that in July 2015, hackers had successfully overcome “the first levels” of defense. “When our experts discovered that the attacker was attempting to get around the next level of defense, the attacker was removed promptly and in a coordinated manner from BASF’s network.” She added that no business relevant information had been lost at any time.

According to Siemens, they were penetrated by the hackers in June 2016. “We quickly discovered and thwarted the attack,” Siemens spokesperson said.

Winnti hackers also involved in political espionage

The hacker group also is interested in penetrating political groups and there were several such indicators according to the report. The Hong Kong government was spied on by the Winnti hackers. The reporters found four infected systems with the help of the nmap network scan, and proceeded to inform the government by email. The reporters also found out a telecommunications provider from India had been infiltrated, the company happens to be located in the region where the Tibetan government has its headquarters. Incidentally, the relevant identifier in the malware is called “CTA.” A file which ended up on VirusTotal in 2018 contains a straightforward keyword: “tibet”.

Other than this the report also throws light on attacks which were not directly related to political espionage but had connection among them. For example, the team found out Marriott hotels in USA was attacked by hackers. The Indonesian airline Lion Air networks were also penetrated by them. They wanted to get to the data of where people travel and where they were located, at any given time. The team confirmed this by showing the relevant coded files in the report.

To read the full research report, check out the official German broadcsaster’s website.

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.