Facebook blocks Chinese state hackers targeting Uyghur activists

Facebook took down accounts used by a Chinese-sponsored hacking group to deploy surveillance malware on devices used by Uyghurs activists, journalists, and dissidents living outside China.

“They targeted activists, journalists, and dissidents, predominantly among Uyghurs from Xinjiang in China primarily living abroad in Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, Syria, Australia, Canada, and other countries,” Facebook’s Head of Cyber Espionage Investigations Mike Dvilyanski and Head of Security Policy Nathaniel Gleicher said.

“This group used various cyber-espionage tactics to identify its targets and infect their devices with malware to enable surveillance.”

Uyghurs hacked in watering hole attacks

The hacking group tracked as Earth Empusa or Evil Eye used the now disabled Facebook accounts to send links that redirected their targets to malicious websites under their control in watering hole attacks.

In some cases, they successfully infected Uyghur targets’ iOS devices with spyware known as PoisonCarp or INSOMNIA.

Before Facebook disrupted their hacking operation, the Chinese state hackers were observed while employing several tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) in attacks targeting Uyghur activists living abroad.

These included compromising and impersonating news websites popular among Uyghurs, and using fake Facebook accounts in social engineering attacks while posing as Uyghur community members such as students, journalists, and human rights advocates.

They also created fake third-party Android app stores to host trojanized apps that infected Uyghur targets with ActionSpy or PluginPhantom malware.

Malware development outsourced to Chinese companies

Facebook linked the malware strains to two Chinese companies, Beijing Best United Technology Co., Ltd. (Best Lh) and Dalian 9Rush Technology Co., Ltd. (9Rush).

The hacking group partially outsourced the development of the Android tooling used in their attacks to the two companies.

“Our assessment of one of them benefited from research by FireEye, a cybersecurity company,” Facebook said.

“These China-based firms are likely part of a sprawling network of vendors, with varying degrees of operational security.”

In December, Facebook also unmasked Vietnam’s APT32 hacking group known for cyberespionage campaigns targeting foreign governments, multi-national corporations, and journalists.

Facebook linked APT32 to Vietnamese IT firm CyberOne Group and added all associated domains with the two entities to a global block list.

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