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Security report becomes security risk

Mandiant's report on Chinese hacking used as bait in spear phishing attacks

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A high profile security report released earlier this week detailing Chinese military involvement in widespread online attacks is itself now being used as a lure in spear-phishing attacks, according to researchers.

The report, APT1: Exposing One of China's Cyber Espionage Units, published by security firm Mandiant, made headlines across the globe as one of the first to detail a concrete link between the Communist Party and advanced persistent threat (APT) style attacks on a range of targets worldwide.

It claimed to have tracked down a group known as “APT1” or the “Comment Crew”, which operated out of the same Shanghai tower blocks as a unit of the People’s Liberation Army – 61398.

Now security vendor Symantec has spotted new targeted attacks using the report’s notoriety to trick users into opening a malicious email attachment.

It explained the following in a blog post:

The email we have come across is in Japanese, but this does not mean there are no emails in other languages spreading in the wild. The email purports to be from someone in the media recommending the report. The attachment is made to appear like the actual report with the use of a PDF file and the name of the company as the file name. However, like in many targeted attacks, the email is sent from a free email account and the content of the email uses subpar language.

The PDF file hides malware detected as Trojan.Pidief which, if opened, executes exploit code for an Adobe Acrobat and Reader remode code execution vulnerability.

In this instance the exploit code doesn’t drop any malware onto a user’s computer, although Symantec warned that there may be other variants in the wild which are more dangerous.

A second malicious version of the report was spotted by security researcher Brandon Dixon.

Labelled "Mandiant_APT2_Report.pdf” – this malicious file is password protected but if opened appears to contain elements of the CVE-2011-2462 Adobe Reader exploit spotted back in December 2011, he wrote in a blog post.

“Once executed on the system, a new process under the name ‘AdobeArm.tmp’ was identified running and the original Mandiant APT1 report is shown,” Dixon continued.

“This payload was collected back on November 6, 2012 and was completely unchanged showing a reuse in payloads even after several months.”

The threat will then try to contact a domain used in previous attacks on human rights activists, he said.

Mandiant issued a notice on Thursday warning users only to retrieve the official report from its own web site.

“We are currently tracking the threat actors behind the activity and have no indication that APT1 itself is associated with either variant,” it added. ®

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