January 30, 2023 • 12:01 am ET
The 5×5—China’s cyber operations
On October 6, 2022, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Security Agency released a joint cybersecurity advisory outlining the top Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures that Chinese state-linked hacking groups have been actively exploiting since 2020 to target US and allied networks. Public reporting indicates that, for the better part of the past two decades, China has consistently engaged in offensive cyber operations, and as the scope of the country’s economic and political ambitions expanded, so has its cyber footprint. The number of China-sponsored and aligned hacking teams are growing, as they develop and deploy offensive cyber capabilities to serve the state’s interests—from economic to national security.
We brought together a group of experts to provide insights into China’s cyber behavior, its structure, and how its operations differ from those of other states.
#1 Is there a particular example that typifies the “Chinese” model of cyber operations?
Dakota Cary, nonresident fellow, Global China Hub, Atlantic Council; consultant, Krebs Stamos Group:
“China’s use of the 2021 Microsoft Exchange Server vulnerability to access email servers captures the essence of modern Chinese hacking operations. A small number of teams exploited a vulnerability in a critical system to collecting intelligence on their targets. After the vulnerability became public and their operation’s stealth was compromised, the number of hacking teams using the vulnerability exploded. China has established a mature operational segmentation and capabilities-sharing system, allowing teams to quickly distribute and use a vulnerability after its use was compromised.”
John Costello, former chief of staff, Office of the National Cyber Director:
“No. China’s approach has evolved too quickly; its actors too heterogenous and many. What has remained consistent over time is the principal focus of China’s cyber operations, which, in general, is the economic viability and growth of China’s domestic industry and advancement of its scientific research, development, and modernization efforts. China does conduct what some would call ‘legitimate’ cyber operations, but these are vastly overshadowed by campaigns that are clearly intended to obtain intellectual property, non-public research, or place Chinese interests in an advantageous economic position.”
Bulelani Jili, nonresident fellow, Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), Atlantic Council:
“What is unique is how the party-state promotes surveillance technology and cyber operations abroad. It utilizes diplomatic exchanges, law enforcement cooperation, and training programs in the Global South. These initiatives not only advance the promotion of surveillance technologies and cyber tools but also support the government’s goals with regard to international norm-making in multilateral and regional institutions.”
Adam Kozy, independent analyst; CEO and founder, SinaCyber:
“There is not one typical example of Chinese cyber operations in my opinion, as operations have evolved over time and are uneven in their distribution of tooling, access to the vulnerability supply chain, and organization. However, one individual who typifies how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has co-opted domestic hacking talent for state-driven espionage purposes is Tan Dailin (谭戴林/aka WickedRose) of WICKED PANDA/APT41 fame. He first began as a patriotic hacker during his time at university in 2000-2002, conducting defacements during the US-Sino hacker war, but was talent spotted by his local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) branch, the Chengdu Military Region Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (TRB) and asked to compete in a hackathon. This was followed by an “internship” where he and his fellow hackers at the NCPH group taught attack/defense courses and appear to have played a role in the 2003-2006 initial Titan Rain attacks probing US and UK government systems. Tan and his friends continued to do contract work for gaming firms, hacking a variety of South Korean, Japanese, and US gaming firms, which gave them experience with high-level vulnerabilities that are able to manipulate at the kernel level and also afforded them stolen gaming certificates allowing their malware to evade antivirus detection. After a brief period where he was reportedly arrested by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) for hacking other domestic Chinese groups, he reemerged with several new contracting entities that have been noted to work for the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in Chengdu. Tan has essentially made a very comfortable living out of being a cyber mercenary for the Chinese state, using his legacy hacking network to constantly improve and upgrade tools, develop new intrusion techniques, and stay relevant for over twenty years.”
Jen Roberts, program assistant, Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), Atlantic Council:
“While no one case study stands out to typify a “Chinese” model, Chinese cyber operations blend components of espionage and entrepreneurship and capitalize on China’s pervasiveness in the international economy. One example of this is the Nortel/Huawei example where espionage, at least in part, caused the collapse of the Canadian telecommunications company.”
#2 What role do non-state actors play in China’s approach to cyber operations?
Cary: “Chinese security services still have a marked preference for using contracted hacking teams. These groups often raise money from committing criminal acts, in addition to work on behalf of intelligence agencies. Whereas in the United States, the government may purchase vulnerabilities to use on an offensive mission or hire a few companies to conduct cyber defense on a network, the US government does not hire firms to conduct specific offensive operations. In China, the government may hire teams for both offensive and defensive work, including offensive hacking operations.”
Costello: “Non-state actors play a myriad number of roles. Most notably, Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation indictments show clear evidence of contractual relationships between the MSS and non-state actors conducting cyber intelligence operations. Less conventional, Chinese hacktivists have on occasion played a limited but substantive role in certain cases, such as cyberattacks against South Korea’s Lotte group during the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system kerfuffle in 2017. Hypothetically, China’s military strategy calls for a cyber defense militia; but the contours or reality of mobilization, training, and reliability are unclear. China’s concept of ‘people’s war’ in cyberspace—a familiar adoption of Maoist jargon for new concepts—has been discussed but has yet to be seen in practice in any meaningful form.”
Jili: “State investment and procurement of public security systems from private firms are driving the development of China’s surveillance ecosystem. Accordingly, private firm work and collaboration with the state are scaling Beijing’s means to conduct surveillance operations on targeted domestic populations that are perceived threats to regime stability. Crucially, given the financial incentives to collaborate with Beijing, private companies have limited reasons not to support state security prerogatives.”
Kozy: “This question has the issue of mirroring bias. We tend to view things from a United States and Western lens when evaluating whether someone is a state actor or not, because we have very defined lines around what an offensive cyber operator can do acting on behalf of the US government. China has thrived in this grey area, relying on patriotic hackers with tacit state approval at times, hackers with criminal businesses, as well as growing its domestic ability to recruit talented researchers from the private sector and universities. The CCP has historically compelled individuals who would be considered traditionally non-state-affiliated actors to aid campaigns when necessary. Under an authoritarian regime like the CCP, any individual who is in China or ethnically Chinese can become a state actor very quickly. Actors like Tan Dailin do constitute a different type of threat because the CCP effectively co-opts their talents, while turning a blind eye to their criminal, for-profit side businesses that are illegal and have worldwide impact.”
Roberts: “Chinese non-state actors are very involved in Chinese cyber operations. A wide variety of non-state entities, such as contractors and technology conglomerates (Alibaba, Huawei, etc.), have worked in tandem with the CCP on a variety of research, development, and execution of cyber operations. This relationship is fortified by Chinese disclosure laws and repercussions of violating them. While Russia’s relationship with non-state actors relies on the opaqueness of non-state groups’ relationships with the government, China’s relationship with non-state entities is much more transparent.”
#3 How do China’s cyber operations differ from those of other states in the region?
Cary: “China has the most hackers and bureaucrats on payroll in Asia. Its operations are not different in kind nor process, but scale. While Vietnam’s or India’s cyber operators are able to have some effect in China, they are not operating at the scale at which China is operating. The most significant differentiator—which is still only speculation—is that China likely collects from the backbone of the Internet via agreements or compromise of telecommunication giants like Huawei, China Unicom, etc., as well as accessing undersea cables.”
Costello: “Scale. The scale of China’s cyber operations dwarfs those of other countries in the region—the complexity and sheer range of targeting, and the number of domestic technology companies whose increasingly global reach may be utilized for intelligence gain and influence. As China’s influence and global reach expands, so too does its self-perceived need to protect and further expand its interests. Cyber serves as a low-risk and often successful tool to accomplish this in economic and security realms.”
Jili: “While most regional and global players’ cyber operations have a domestic bent, Beijing also actively promotes surveillance technology and practices abroad through diplomatic exchanges, law enforcement cooperation, and training programs. These efforts not only advance the proliferation of Chinese public security systems, but they also support the government’s goals concerning international norm-making in multilateral and regional institutions.”
Kozy: “China is by far the most aggressive cyber power in its region. It can be debated that Russian cyber operatives are still more advanced in terms of sophistication, but China aggressively conducts computer network exploitations against all of its regional neighbors with specific advanced persistent threat (APT) groups across the PLA and MSS having regional focuses. Some of its neighbors such as India, Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea have advanced capabilities of their own to combat this, but there are regular public references to successful Chinese cyber campaigns against these countries despite significant defensive spending. Regional countries without cyber capabilities likely have long-standing compromises of critical systems.”
Roberts: “China has a talent for extracting intellectual property and conducting large-scale espionage. While other threat actors in the region, like North Korea, also conduct espionage operations, North Korea’s primary focus is on operations that prioritize fiscal extraction to fund regime activity, while China seems much more intent on collecting data for a variety of purposes. Despite differing capacities, sophistication, and types of operations, the end goals for both states are not all that different—political survival.”
More from the Cyber Statecraft Initiative:
#4 How have China’s offensive cyber operations changed since 2018?
Cary: “China’s emphasis on developing its domestic pipeline of software vulnerabilities is paying off. China has passed policies that co-opt private research on behalf of the security services, support public software vulnerability competitions, and invest in technology to automate software vulnerability discovery. Together, as outlined by Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center’s 2022 analysis, China is combining these forces to use more software vulnerabilities now than ever before.”
Costello: “China’s cyber operations have unsurprisingly grown in scale and sophistication. Actors are less ‘noisy’ and China’s tactical approach to cyber operations appears to have evolved towards more scalable operations, namely supply-chain attacks and targeting service providers. These tactics have the advantage of improving the return on investment for an operation or campaign, as they allow compromise of all customers who use the product or service while minimizing risk of discovery. Supply chain attacks or compromise through third-party services can also be more difficult to detect and identify. China’s cyber landscape is not homogenous, and there remains great variability in sophistication across the range of Chinese actors.
As reported by the Director of National Intelligence in the last few years, China has increasingly turned towards targeting US critical infrastructure, particular natural gas pipelines. This is an evolution, though whether it is ‘learning by doing,’ operational preparation of the battlespace, or nascent ventures by a more operationally-focused Strategic Support Force (reorganization into a Space and Cyber Corps from 2015-17) is unclear. Time will most certainly tell.”
Jili: “Since 2018, the party-state has been more active in utilizing platforms like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), an emerging markets organization, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to promote digital infrastructure products and investments in the Global South. Principally, through multilateral platforms like FOCAC, Beijing has promoted resolutions to increase aid and cooperation in areas like cybersecurity and cyber operations.”
Kozy: “Intrusions from China have continued unabated since 2018, with a select number of Chinese APTs having periods of inactivity due to COVID-19 shutdowns. The Cyber Security Law and National Intelligence Law, both enacted in 2017, provided additional legal authority for China’s intelligence services to access data and co-opt Chinese companies for use in vaguely worded national security investigations. Of note is China’s efforts to increase the number of domestic cybersecurity conferences and nationally recognized cybersecurity universities as part of ongoing recruitment pipelines for cyber talent. Though there was increased focus from the Western cybersecurity community on MSS-affiliated contractors after the formation of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015, more PLA-affiliated APT groups have emerged since the pandemic with new tactics, techniques, and procedures. The new PLASSF organization means these entities may be compromising high-value targets and then assessing them for use for offensive cyber operations in wartime scenarios or cyber espionage operations.”
Roberts: “Since 2018, Chinese offensive cyber operations have increased in scale. China has reinvigorated its workforce capacity-building efforts to increase the overall quantity and quality of workers. It has tightened its legal regime, cracking down on external vulnerability disclosure. It has also begun significantly investing in disinformation campaigns, especially against Taiwan. This is evident by the Chinese influence in Taiwan’s 2018 and 2020 elections.”
#5 What domestic entities, partnerships, or roles exist in China’s model of cyber operations model that are not present in the United States or Western Europe?
Cary: “China’s emphasis on contracted hackers coincides with divergent levels of trust between the central government and some provincial-level MSS hacking teams. Some researchers maintain that one contracted hacking team pwns targets inside China to do internal security prior to visits by central government leaders. While there is scant evidence that these attitudes and beliefs make their way into operations against foreign targets, they do likely impact the distribution of responsibilities and operations in a way not seen in mature democracies. The politicization of intelligence services is particularly risky in China’s political system.”
Costello: “The extralegal influence of the CCP cannot be overstated. Though the National Security Law, National Intelligence Law, and other laws ostensibly establish a legal foundation for China’s security apparatus, the reality is that the party is not bound strictly to these laws—and they only demonstrate a public indicator of what power it may possess. The lack of any independent judiciary suggests unchecked power of the CCP to co-opt or compel assistance from any citizen or company for which it almost certainly has near-total leverage. While the suspicion of Chinese organizations can be overblown, the idea that the CCP has the power to utilize not each but any organization is sobering and the root of many of these concerns. The lack of rigorous rule of law, in these limited circumstances, is certainly a competitive advantage in the intelligence sphere.”
Jili: “Beijing has nurtured a tech industry and environment that actively support the party-state’s aims to bolster government surveillance and cyber capabilities. From large firms to startups, many companies work with the state to conduct vulnerability research, develop threat detection capabilities, and produce security and intelligence products. While these private firms rely on Chinese venture capital and state loans, they have grown to service a global customer base.”
Kozy: “Starting with the 2015 control of WooYun, China’s largest vulnerability site, the CCP has gained an incredible amount of control of the vulnerability supply chain within China, which affords its cyber actors access to high-value vulnerabilities for use in their campaigns. The aforementioned 2017 laws also made it easier for Chinese authorities to prevent domestic researchers from competing in cyber conferences overseas and improved access to companies doing vulnerability research in China. The CCP’s public crackdowns on Jack Ma, Ant Financial, and many others have shown that the CCP fears the influence its tech firms have and has quickly moved to keep its tech giants loyal to the party; a stark contrast to the relationships that the United States and European Union have with tech giants like Google, Facebook, etc.”
Roberts: “While corporate-government partnerships exist everywhere, what separates the United States and Western Europe from China is the scope and scale of the connective tissue that exists between the two entities. In China, this relationship has more explicit requirements in the cyber domain, especially when it comes to vulnerability disclosure.”
Simon Handler is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative within the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). He is also the editor-in-chief of The 5×5, a series on trends and themes in cyber policy. Follow him on Twitter @SimonPHandler.
The Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, under the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), works at the nexus of geopolitics and cybersecurity to craft strategies to help shape the conduct of statecraft and to better inform and secure users of technology.