Operation Soft Cell: Chinese Hackers Breach Middle East Telecom Providers


During the first quarter of 2023, telecommunication companies in the Middle East have become targets of recent cyber assaults.

The set of unauthorized entries has been linked to a cyber espionage agent from China who is connected to a persistent scheme known as Operation Soft Cell due to similarities in the tools used.

According to a recent technical report shared with The Hacker News by researchers from SentinelOne and QGroup, the first step of the attack involves penetrating Microsoft Exchange servers that are accessible on the Internet. This is done to install web shells that facilitate the execution of commands.

After gaining an initial position, the attackers proceed with a range of activities such as gathering information, stealing credentials, moving laterally within the system, and extracting data.

Cybereason has named the malicious acts carried out by China-backed actors against telecom providers since 2012 as Operation Soft Cell.

The Gallium cyber attacker, also identified by Microsoft as the Soft Cell threat actor, focuses on exploiting vulnerable public online services and employs tools such as Mimikatz to gain access to login information, thereby enabling the attacker to move laterally through the affected networks.

The adversarial collective is utilizing a backdoor called PingPull in its espionage operations against companies in Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, which is hard to detect.

The main focus of the most recent campaign involves using a modified version of Mimikatz called mim221, which includes additional measures to prevent detection.

According to researchers, the employment of customized modules incorporating advanced techniques indicates that threat actors are committed to enhancing their toolset for maximum undercover operations. This emphasizes the ongoing maintenance and progress of the Chinese espionage malware. I'm sorry, there is no paragraph provided to be paraphrased. Please provide the paragraph and I will be happy to assist you.

Previous studies on Gallium indicate that it shares strategic characteristics [PDF] with various Chinese governmental groups, including APT10 (also known as Bronze Riverside Potassium or Stone Panda), APT27 (also known as Bronze Union Emissary Panda or Lucky Mouse), and APT41 (also known as Barium Bronze Atlas or Wicked Panda).

Once more, this suggests indications of sharing of closed-source tools among state-sponsored cyber attackers from China, and the potential involvement of a digital keeper in charge of managing and dispersing the tools.

The discoveries arrive during a time when it has been exposed that different hacker groups, including BackdoorDiplomacy and WIP26, are targeting telecommunications companies in the Middle Eastern area.

The researchers determined that Chinese hackers who engage in cyber espionage have a particular desire for the Middle East region.

These malicious individuals will likely keep developing and improving their instruments using innovative methods that can bypass detection mechanisms. This may entail incorporating or altering publicly accessible codes.

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