The following is part of Flashpoint’s 2021 Intel Wrap-Up series.
APAC’s dynamic threat actor landscape
To understand the APAC cyber threat landscape it’s essential to know how real-world events impact threat actor behaviors in cyberspace, and vice versa. This year, the APAC region was no stranger to border clashes, territorial disputes, economic competition, diplomatic positioning, and numerous other tensions. Here, we focus on China, which has an outsized impact across—and beyond—the region.
The APAC cyber threat landscape was equally dynamic, driven by a range of factors that require security teams and cyber defenders to take a careful, informed approach to their intelligence gathering programs. The clearest apertures into APAC’s illicit communities are earned within a cyber ecosystem landscape where new laws and other nuanced forces are causing threat actors—who operate in a multitude of languages—to constantly shift TTPs in order to realize their aims.
China consolidates power
In 2021, the Chinese government laid out rules of the road going forward and cemented President Xi’s position as China’s paramount leader for the foreseeable future. A top priority for President Xi was cleaning up China’s online activity and reigning in domestic technology companies. Beijing wants to control the public opinion online, which is critical for governance and for China’s aim to become a “cyber great power.”
The impact of the law
The Chinese internet is experiencing the effects of the ongoing implementation of laws, meant to clean up or “rectify” content. These efforts have extended deep into the online social sphere where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to drive public opinion.
Access is becoming a higher stakes cat-and-mouse game, and threat actors are migrating to external platforms and chat services to conduct illicit activities.
Threat actors continue to operate both within mainland China’s online spaces and outside the “Great Firewall,” giving them the ability to carry out disinformation campaigns and transnational fraud schemes involving a range of illicit activities—sales of databases, tools and malware; discount fraud; game cheats; carding schemes; hacker-for-hire services, and more.
The flow of information
Strides in real-name registration enforcement have significantly reduced the outward flowing pipeline of data and information meant for domestic eyes only. The Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), for instance, is intended to further reign in a relatively free-wheeling data storage and transfer space in China. It also mandates security reviews for data sharing within China and from China outward.
The COVID-19 pandemic also became the subject and source of massive misinformation, including Beijing’s ongoing efforts to control the narrative about the origins and pervasiveness of the coronavirus.
Unsealed indictments describing Chinese nation-state actor activity reveals new details about how these groups have for years been linked to China’s civilian technology sector, using front companies to operate in the open under the guise of legitimate technology services.
Flashpoint has also observed state actors operating in forums frequented by aspiring and seasoned cybersecurity practitioners. There, state actors obtain knowledge and skills around exploits available in the wild.
Related reading: RAMP Ransomware’s Apparent Overture to Chinese Threat Actors
Meanwhile, many Chinese forums have undergone significant changes in recent years, such as beefing up membership requirements to restrict non-Chinese entrants or require applicants to provide proof of their experience and/or technological acumen.
Hong Kong and Taiwan
China continued to assert its authority over Hong Kong and make recovering Taiwan a pillar of its legitimacy.
During the COVID lockdown, the central government introduced the Hong Kong National Security Law, which criminalizes activities of dissidents, vocal business leaders, and everyday Hong Kongers. The effects of this law were seen through 2021 as arrests were made in Hong Kong.
Taiwan, observing the central government’s handling of Hong Kong, has become increasingly hardened against the prospect of Chinese rule as well.
As multilateral organizations and individual nations draw a line around China’s tactics to coerce acceptance that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, the possibility for physical confrontation and cyber-enabled activity increases, highlighted by Chinese military flights into Taiwanese airspace in October.
2021 timeline: Significant events involving China
- January 10: China reports the largest daily jump of COVID-19 cases in five months. The outbreak occurred in China’s northeast Heilongjiang Province, which borders North Korea.
- January 20: Shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Chinese foreign ministry moves to sanction former Trump administration officials, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, economic adviser for Asia David Stilwell, national security adviser John Bolton, and strategist Steve Bannon. The move, largely seen as symbolic, was likely in response to an earlier announcement by the US State Department that the “atrocities” of Muslim minorities in China’s western Xinjiang Province is a genocide. The Trump administration had also increased sanctions against Chinese officials on the basis of various abuses related to Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.
- January 22: A new Chinese law allows the coast guard to fire on foreign vessels. The law also authorizes Chinese coast guard personnel to dismantle foreign-built structures on islands claimed by China and to create temporary exclusion zones in Chinese-claimed maritime territory.
- February 8: The US audio-chat app Clubhouse is reportedly blocked in China.
- February 10: The first independently launched Chinese spacecraft successfully enters Martian orbit after a journey of nearly seven months.
- February 12: The Chinese government bans BBC World News for allegedly violating Chinese media regulations.
- February 26: The Dutch parliament passed a nonbinding motion stating that China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims constitutes genocide. The Netherlands is the first European country to carry out such a vote.
- March 4: China announces plans for a “Polar Silk Road” in its newly released Five-Year Plan.
- March 5: The US Senate votes unanimously in favor of a bill that would increase restrictions on Confucius Institutes—Chinese government-funded culture and education centers affiliated with universities.
- March 11: India’s Department of Telecommunications proposes a digital firewall against Chinese telecom products.
- March 12: Simon Hu, the CEO of fintech giant Ant Group, suddenly resigns after increased pressure from government authorities to enforce regulations and capital requirements similar to those for financial institutions.
- March 19: Citing security concerns, Chinese authorities ban Tesla vehicles from entering property belonging to the military, intelligence agencies, and certain state-owned companies affiliated with national security.
- March 26: Taipei announced that twenty Chinese fighter jets enter Taiwanese airspace after the island nation signed a coast guard deal with the US. The announcement noted this is the largest incursion into Taiwanese airspace the military has ever observed.
- April 9: The US Department of Commerce adds three Chinese computer companies and four Chinese National Supercomputing Centers to its banned list.
- April 14: The US intelligence community declares China the greatest threat to US innovation, economic security, and democratic ideals.
- April 21: Japanese police charge two Chinese nationals for conducting cyberattacks on the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in addition to two hundred other aerospace and technology organizations in Japan.
- April 29: New research reveals that the advanced persistent threat (APT) group “Naikon,” a nation-state actor attributed to the Chinese government, has been conducting a large-scale cyberespionage campaign targeting military entities in multiple Southeast Asian countries.
Related reading: China’s Hackers to Showcase Zero-Day Exploits at Tianfu Cup This Weekend
- May 6: The Chinese government is accused of using an iPhone exploit discovered by the winner of the 2018 Tianfu Cup, an annual hacking competition hosted in Chengdu, for espionage and surveillance campaigns against Uyghur minorities and political dissidents.
- May 7: The World Health Organization (WHO) grants approval of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine.
- May 13: The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) launches a campaign to crack down on domestic cybercrimes including fraud, cyberbullying, algorithm abuse, sock puppetry, and website traffic manipulation, as well as vulgar and pornographic content.
- June 3: Suspected Chinese hackers breach New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) using the Pulse Secure zero-day exploit. However, the MTA’s multilayered security system prevented hackers from accessing confidential data or systems that control the subways.
- June 11: The Chinese government passes a law aimed at countering foreign sanctions. The law was in response to US and European efforts to pressure Beijing through sanctions based on human rights, trade, and technology issues.
- June 17: China launches its Shenzhou-12—its first crewed mission to space since 2016—to Tianhe, China’s unfinished space station.
- July 9: The US Department of Commerce adds 14 Chinese companies to a banned list over human-rights abuses in China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang.
- July 14: The US Senate passes “The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” which would presume all imports from Xinjiang used forced labor, meaning they are banned under the 1930 Tariff Act—unless proven otherwise by US authorities.
- July 26: The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) release a report claiming satellite imagery shows China is building a second, 120 strong nuclear missile silo field near Yu’men, Gansu.
- July 27: Huobi and OKCoin, two of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world by transaction volume, permanently close their Beijing branches.
- August 6: Beijing expresses outrage at the US government’s announcement of a US$750 million arms sale to Taiwan (the Republic of China; ROC). China accuses the US of “vicious provocation.” However, the planned arms sale received widespread support from Congress and the Pentagon.
- August 12: In a five-year blueprint published by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese authorities announce they will draft new laws on national security, technology innovation, monopoly, and education.
- August 20: The NPC passes a law—effective November 1—that will limit what information Chinese companies can gather about their customers, and regulates how the information is stored. The law is similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) but does not limit government access to the data. The legislation is seen as another example of China’s crackdown on its tech industry.
- August 20: The National People’s Congress (NPC) officially revises Chinese law allowing couples to have three children.
- August 23: The White House announces multiple new agreements with Singapore to address cybersecurity, climate change, the pandemic, and other issues in Asia.
- September 8: Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin says in a briefing that China is ready to maintain communication with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, calling the establishment of their new government “a necessary step” toward reconstruction.
- September 15: A deal inked at the end of 2021, between US, the UK, and Australia, is seen as a counterbalance China’s growing military aims in the region.
- September 20: China announces a 40-minute per diem limit on “Douyin”—China’s version of TikTok—for children under the age of fourteen, between the hours of 6 AM and 10 PM. The announcement is similar to the time constraint on video games for children under the age of eighteen China announced in August, and is seen as a continuation of China’s crackdown on its domestic tech industry.
- September 27: After China bans all cryptocurrency transactions, prominent online exchanges such as Binance and Huobi rush to remove Chinese customers.
- September 30: A newly discovered rootkit, “Demodex,” that installs a backdoor on Windows 10 systems, is believed to be attributed to a Chinese-speaking hacker group known as “GhostEmperor.”
- October 1: China appoints Erkin Tuniyaz, an ethnic Uyghur, as the new governor of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, where international observers claiming China is carrying out mass detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups.
- October 6: President Biden says that he and President Xi agreed to abide by the “Taiwan agreement”—where the US recognizes the Chinese government in Beijing and not Taipei, as long as the future of Taiwan is decided through peaceful means. The announcement adds clarity and calm to observers after China flew 148 aircraft in Taiwan’s air defense zone in the week after China’s “national holiday.”
- October 7: CIA Director William Burns announces the creation of two new mission centers, titled “The China Mission Center” and “The Transnational and Technology Mission Center.” Director Burns says The China Mission Center will strengthen focus on “the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government.”
- October 14: LinkedIn announces it will sunset its local version of the app in China.
- October 15: China bans Quran Majeed, one of the most popular Quran apps in the world.
- November 1: China officially applied to be a member of the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement, a new international trade agreement that seeks to develop a framework for the digital economy. The agreement currently consists of three members: Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore.
- November 1: China’s new Personal Information Protection Law, approved in August, took effect. The law places restrictions on the amount and type of data that can be legally collected by companies, both foreign and domestic. It also contains guidelines on data storage, transfer, and sales, as well as penalties for noncompliance.
- November 2: Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai accused former vice premier and member of the Chinese Politburo Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a post on Weibo, a major Chinese social media site. Censors deleted the original post in minutes, but it still prompted a resurgence of the #MeToo movement in China.
- November 12: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has passed a “historical resolution,” a document that summarizes and addresses key achievements of the CCP over the last 100 years and its future directions. This is only the third instance of such a document published since 1945.
- November 12: The Joe Biden administration signed a law banning foreign companies deemed a risk to national security from receiving network equipment licenses from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Many Chinese technology companies are impacted by the ban, including China Telecom, Dahua Technology Company, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Company, Huawei, Hytera Communications Corporation, and ZTE.
- November 17: President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping discuss Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Taiwan, human rights, and climate change during a high-level virtual talk. According to The Wall Street Journal, the White House said Biden “underscored that the United States remains committed to the ‘one China’ policy” and that the US “strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
- December 1: China announces a new education plan to make 85 percent of the Chinese population speak Mandarin by 2025, and virtually the entire population speak Mandarin by 2035—even the country’s ethnic minorities.
- December 2: Meta removes over 600 fake Facebook accounts engaged in a COVID-19 disinformation campaign that was orchestrated from China.
- December 3: Six months after its initial public offering (IPO), the Chinese ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing announces it will delist from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
- December 6: The Biden administration announces that the US would exercise a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Shortly after the US announced its boycott, Australia, Canada, Lithuania, and the UK all say they will not send delegates either.
- December 7: The US invites Taiwan to the White House’s virtual democracy summit. Wang Ting-yu, a member of Taiwan’s legislature, says this sends a “clear signal to Beijing” that Taiwan should be treated as a country. China voiced intense criticism of the summit, since it was not invited.
- December 10: It was reported that for the last nine months, China has apparently been targeting Southeast Asian nations for cyberespionage, targeting Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, among others.
- December 13: China’s Ministry of Transportation announced plans to construct the nation’s third heavy-duty icebreaker by 2025 as part of the Polar Silk Road.
- December 14: The Cyberspace Administration of China announces it fined social media platform Weibo 3 million yuan (US$470,558) for disseminating “illegal information” such as pornography and misleading marketing information.
- December 15: A video summit at the end of this year between China and Russia showed how increasingly aligned Russia and China are in acting as a counterbalance against the influence of US and European nations.
- December 16: Chinese hackers have been linked to exploiting a vulnerability in Log4j, a Java-based software found in a myriad of products including security software.
Prepare for 2022 with Flashpoint
Chinese-speaking cyber threat actors, both domestic and diasporic, comprise arguably the largest in APAC. But there is also much to be gleaned from illicit communities across the region, including threat actors whose primary languages are Vietnamese, Indonesian, Tagalog, Thai, English (Australia, New Zealand), plus many others. Intelligence gleaned across these illicit communities and language ecosystems is vital for security teams who seek a stereoscopic understanding of the APAC threat landscape.
When thinking about China’s legal and regulatory developments, often the intention of the law can overshadow clauses that give Chinese authorities carte blanche to access information flows, network information and physical hardware on the vaguely defined ground of “national security.” Security practitioners should consider how their organization’s assets are exposed to systems under China’s jurisdiction and what the risk is for data transfers or sharing, especially for their intellectual property and customer base. In addition, security teams should continue monitoring shifting TTPs and behavioral norms of online threat actors, who do not want to become the focus of Chinese authorities’ scrutiny.
To see firsthand how Flashpoint cybersecurity technology can help your organization access critical information and insight into threat actors in APAC, and protect critical assets and stakeholders, sign up for a free trial today.