China group attacks India with Word exploit, then uses Microsoft's WMI

The hacking group seeks geopolitical information

A hacking group suspected of operating from China has had success stealing information from mostly Indian targets, often pertaining to border disputes and trade issues, according to FireEye.

The gang specializes in sending targeted phishing emails to victims in the hope of gaining wider access to their networks, a practice known as spear phishing, said Bryce Boland, CTO for Asia-Pacific at the security firm.

FireEye hasn’t give a name to the group, but has watched it since 2011, Boland said.

The company has gathered data on the group based on attacks attempted against its customers. Analysis of Internet infrastructure used by the group, including command-and-control servers, have given insight into the scope of its operations, Boland said.

“In some cases, we’ve found not just our customers but many other organizations that are being targeted as well and actively being breached,” he said.

Some of the latest spear-phishing emails have an attached Microsoft Word document, Boland said. The document contains an exploit for a now-patched vulnerability in Word dating from 2012.

The vulnerability is “really ancient,” Boland said. Still, it’s effective if organizations haven’t patched.

“For the most part, most governments across Asia have relatively less mature cybersecurity defensive capabilities,” he said. “They’re less effective today in patch management.”

Once a user is compromised, this group's attackers are using a script, nicknamed WATERMAIN, that leverages Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) to explore computers and the network.

WMI is a powerful tool used by administrators and can be used for searching across machines on a network, distributing software and executing commands.

There’s often not a lot of logging and monitoring of WMI activity within organizations, which makes using it advantageous for the attackers, Boland said.

The group has targeted more than 100 entities of which around 70 are in India. But the group has also sought to compromise targets in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Boland said FireEye decided to release the information to show that organizations in Asia are also subject to these kinds of specific attacks.

Typically when FireEye releases information, the cyberattackers will change their tactics in order to be less obvious. Boland said he expects this group will recognize itself, since not many others use WMI as part of their attacks.

"I think they'll know they got caught," he said.

Having to change tactics comes with a price, however, and raises the attackers' operating costs, which is good.

"We want to force them to invest," he said.

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