Mandiant is tracking a suspected China-nexus campaign believed to have exploited a recently announced vulnerability in Fortinet’s FortiOS SSL-VPN, CVE-2022-42475, as a zero-day. Evidence suggests the exploitation was occurring as early as October 2022 and identified targets include a European government entity and a managed service provider located in Africa.
Mandiant identified a new malware we are tracking as “BOLDMOVE” as part of our investigation. We have uncovered a Windows variant of BOLDMOVE and a Linux variant, which is specifically designed to run on FortiGate Firewalls. We believe that this is the latest in a series of Chinese cyber espionage operations that have targeted internet-facing devices and we anticipate this tactic will continue to be the intrusion vector of choice for well-resourced Chinese groups.
China Continues to Focus on Network Devices
This incident continues China’s pattern of exploiting internet facing devices, specifically those used for managed security purposes (e.g., firewalls, IPS\IDS appliances etc.). These devices are attractive targets for multiple reasons. First, they are accessible to the internet, and if the attacker has an exploit, they can gain access to a network without requiring any victim interaction. This allows the attacker to control the timing of the operation and can decrease the chances of detection.
The exploits required to compromise these devices can be resource intensive to develop, and thus they are most often used in operations against hardened and high priority targets; often in the government and defense sectors. With BOLDMOVE, the attackers not only developed an exploit, but malware that shows an in-depth understanding of systems, services, logging, and undocumented proprietary formats. Malware running on an internet-connected device can enable lateral movement further into a network and enable command and control (C2) by tunneling commands in and data out of a network.
It is important to note that many of these types of devices do not offer a simple mechanism to view which processes are running on the device’s operating systems. These devices are typically intended to inspect network traffic, searching for anomalies as well as signs of malicious behavior, but are often not inherently protected themselves.
- Managed devices may provide only a limited admin interface that allows configuration and viewing/collection of logs
- Managed devices may not allow for additional security products, such as Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) to be installed
- Access to core security features may be limited to the device manufacturer
In December 2022, Mandiant identified the BOLDMOVE backdoor associated with the exploitation of CVE-2022-49475 FortiOS vulnerability. BOLDMOVE is written in C and has both Windows and Linux variants, the latter of which is intended to run (at least in part) on Fortinet devices as it reads data from a file proprietary to Fortinet.
Mandiant has not directly observed exploitation of the vulnerability; however, samples of the BOLDMOVE Linux variant have a hard coded C2 IP address that were listed by Fortinet as being involved in the exploitation, suggesting CVE-2022-49475 was exploited to deliver BOLDMOVE. In addition to the Linux variant, Mandiant also revealed a Windows version. Windows versions of BOLDMOVE appear to have been compiled as early as 2021. However, Mandiant has not seen this malware in use in the wild so it is uncertain how it was used. In-depth analysis of the malware is provided later in this post.
We assess with low confidence that this operation has a nexus to the People’s Republic of China. China-nexus clusters have historically shown significant interest in targeting networking devices and manipulating the operating system or underlying software which supports these devices. In addition, the geographical and sector targeting is consistent with previous Chinese operations.
- Limited technical indicators point to the development of the malware as having been compiled on a machine in the UTC+8 time zone, which includes Australia, China, Russia, Singapore, and other Eastern Asian countries, and on a machine configured to display Chinese characters.
- A host survey buffer which is used by the Windows variant of BOLDMOVE in order to provide the C2 with information on the infected host starts with the string “gbk”. The comparable survey buffer of the Linux variant starts with “utf-8”, which indicates that this field designates character encoding. If we are to consider “gbk” in this context, then this is an extension of a Chinese character set
- The exploitation of zero-day vulnerabilities in networking devices, followed by the installation of custom implants, is consistent with previous Chinese exploitation of networking devices.
Mandiant has previously reported on significant campaigns impacting networking devices, likely revealing a long-standing interest by China to embed cyber campaigns in the overarching telecommunications and networking architecture used by organizations worldwide:
- In April 2021, Mandiant reported extensively on the exploitation of Pulse Secure. Mandiant recently responded to multiple security incidents involving compromises of Pulse Secure VPN appliances.
- In March 2021, Mandiant identified three zero-day vulnerabilities in SonicWall’s Email Security (ES) product that were being exploited in the wild. Mandiant’s investigations informed us that the adversary leveraged these vulnerabilities, with intimate knowledge of the SonicWall application, to install a backdoor, access files and emails, and move laterally into the victim organization’s network.