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One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work

Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers

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The Chinese operatives behind two major advanced persistent threat (APT) groups have fully resumed their activities despite being exposed publically last year, in a sign that diplomatic efforts by the US aren’t working, according to Mandiant.

The FireEye-owned company said in its M-Trends report that over the past year it has been monitoring the APT1 group first revealed in its February 2013 study as well as APT12 – another China-based group the New York Times claimed in January 2013 had compromised its networks in a lengthy campaign.

Despite Mandiant’s claims last year that compelling evidence connected APT1 to Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army, Beijing has always strenuously denied any links to the groups.

However, the security vendor had the following to say:

... Mandiant’s continued observations of APT1 and APT12 activity, measured by command and control (C2) sessions, revealed a different response behind the scenes, suggesting a possible acknowledgement that both groups had been exposed.

Based on comparisons between APT1 and APT12 activity during 2013 and the previous three years, Mandiant believes that these threat groups responded to their public exposure in two ways. First, both groups delayed their return to normal operations following the end of the Chinese New Year holidays in February. Second, both groups quickly shifted their operational infrastructure to continue their activities.

APT12 waited around 150 days to resume “pre-disclosure levels” of activity, while APT1 delayed operations for around 160 days, Mandiant said.

What’s more, both appeared to change their “operational architecture” including switching the IP addresses exposed in the Mandiant report, “in an attempt to obscure their future data theft operations”.

While this isn’t in itself surprising behaviour, it paints a bleak picture for the Obama administration, which has repeatedly warned China that its continued cyber incursions may seriously affect the countries’ “economic relationship”.

Mandiant concluded:

APT1 and APT12’s reactions to their public exposure suggest that the PRC, despite publicly denying engaging in state-sponsored data theft, is unwilling to permanently cease its use of intrusive cyber operations.

Unfortunately for the US, the Edward Snowden NSA revelations have now given China the perfect ammo if Washington persists in trying to take the moral high ground in discussions on limiting online espionage activities. ®

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