Did A Chinese State-Sponsored Group Breach Taiwan’s Semiconductor Industry?

At the Black Hat security conference, researchers from the Taiwanese cybersecurity firm CyCraft revealed at least seven Taiwanese chip firms have been breached over the past two years, reports Wired:
The series of deep intrusions — called Operation Skeleton Key due to the attackers’ use of a “skeleton key injector” technique — appeared aimed at stealing as much intellectual property as possible, including source code, software development kits, and chip designs. And while CyCraft has previously given this group of hackers the name Chimera, the company’s new findings include evidence that ties them to mainland China and loosely links them to the notorious Chinese state-sponsored hacker group Winnti, also sometimes known as Barium, or Axiom. “This is very much a state-based attack trying to manipulate Taiwan’s standing and power,” says Chad Duffy, one of the CyCraft researchers who worked on the company’s long-running investigation…

The researchers found that, in at least some cases, the hackers appeared to gain initial access to victim networks by compromising virtual private networks, though it wasn’t clear if they obtained credentials for that VPN access or if they directly exploited vulnerabilities in the VPN servers. The hackers then typically used a customized version of the penetration testing tool Cobalt Strike, disguising the malware they planted by giving it the same name as a Google Chrome update file. They also used a command-and-control server hosted on Google’s or Microsoft’s cloud services, making its communications harder to detect as anomalous….

Perhaps the most remarkable of those new clues came from essentially hacking the hackers. CyCraft researchers observed the Chimera group exfiltrating data from a victim’s network and were able to intercept an authentication token from their communications to a command-and-control server. Using that same token, CyCraft’s analysts were able browse the contents of the cloud server, which included what they describe as a “cheat sheet” for the hackers, outlining their standard operating procedure for typical intrusions. That document was notably written in simplified Chinese characters, used in mainland China but not Taiwan…

“It’s possible that what they’re seeing is just a small fragment of a larger picture,” says the director of Kaspersky’s Global Research & Analysis Team, who tells Wired the group has also attacked telecoms, tech firms, and a broad range of other Taiwanese companies.

But in the same article one of CyCraft’s researchers argues the group could be looking for even more exploits. “If you have a really deep understanding of these chips at a schematic level, you can run all sorts of simulated attacks on them and find vulnerabilities before they even get released.”