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China-connected hackers compromised U.S. government systems, CISA says

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Instead of spending resources to create new malicious tools, sophisticated cyber actors, including those affiliated with China’s State Security Ministry, are using known vulnerabilities and open source exploits and have infiltrated federal government entities, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

CISA analysts continue to observe markup activity indicating compromise or continued access to federal government networks, reads a advisory the agency released Monday with the FBI. CISA, housed within the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for overseeing cybersecurity across the country.

The advisory lists tactics, techniques and procedures used by Chinese MSS-affiliated cyberactors that CISA has observed over the past year. They understand how Chinese government affiliates and other cyber actors of different levels of sophistication are able to gain initial access, collect and store credentials, select targets and collect information, and develop capabilities by establishing command and control in a compromised system.

This beaconing is the result of cyberthreat actors successfully completing cyber operations that are often designed around emerging vulnerabilities and build on existing exploitation tools, says the board. CISA observed activity of a federal government IP address reporting threat actors [command and control] server.

CISA warns that sophisticated cybercriminals are using public resources such as the National Vulnerability Database maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to narrow down their targets. Vulnerability databases, as well as open source tools such as Shodanan Internet search engine penetration testers used to see vulnerable Internet connected devices are legitimate tools for advocates, CISA notes, but in a similar vein. ideas, they can be exploited by attackers.

Using these data sources, CISA analysts observed a correlation between public disclosure of a vulnerability and targeted analysis of systems identified as vulnerable. This correlation suggests that cyber threat actors also rely on Shodan, the [Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures] database, the [National Vulnerability Database], and other open-source information to identify targets of opportunity and plan cyber operations.

CISA said it identified traffic indicating that Chinese actors affiliated with the MSS were attempting to exploit a certain vulnerability in the weeks after its public disclosure, and that adversaries generally appear to be quicker to take advantage of weaknesses than government advocates and trade to correct them.

In some cases, cybercriminals have used the same vulnerabilities to compromise multiple organizations across multiple industries, CISA said. Organizations don’t seem to mitigate known vulnerabilities as quickly as cyber threats exploit them.

CISA and FBI-recommended agencies check for errors in their system configurations and prioritize remediation vulnerabilities typically exploited by Chinese MSS-affiliated actors for layered security benefits.

Widespread implementation of robust configuration and patch management programs would dramatically increase network security, the advisory says. It would also reduce the speed and frequency of opportunistic attacks by forcing threat actors to spend time and funds researching unknown vulnerabilities and developing custom exploitation tools.



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