KSG Exec Brief: China in US Critical Infrastructure
When, why, and how?
Recent reporting about Volt Typhoon activity, thought to be China’s PLA Southern Theater Command, around US critical infrastructure on Guam and elsewhere in the US raises hard questions: why are those systems targeted and what can be expected?
Ask 10 different China experts about the chances of war over Taiwan and you’ll get seven different answers. Ask those same analysts about how conflict might happen and the disparity in conclusions begins to shrink. Military doctrine, public statements, and military exercises all provide valuable insights into what actions China could take in a crisis. Reports of Volt Typhoon’s “Living Off the Land” cyber activity against critical infrastructure on Guam are another piece of data experts can use to determine likely scenarios.
China expert Devin Thorne explains in his analysis of China’s Science of Military Strategy 2020, a semi-regular published work from the PRC’s military academics, that China will use cyber effects on civilian systems and critical infrastructure to deter the United States from engagement in a Taiwan crisis. We think Thorne’s analysis is spot on.
For businesses who fall into critical infrastructure, like airlines, utilities, hospitals, and financial services, the how of China’s potential actions is critical. The preposition of access, but not malware, on Guam gives a good indication.
What can you find?
Access to critical infrastructure’s networks is all China’s military needs to act on a moments notice. Rather than preposition their malware on networks that could be found, analyzed, and defended against, operators just need an open door through which they can drop an eventual payload—or better yet, take action without ever introducing new binaries. These living off the land campaigns offer more stealth than your standard vuln exploitation + payload = action on objectives operations, making them a favored tool for operators who may one day have to possess a capability.
Living off the land (LOTL) attacks are not new. Effectively countering them requires the fundamentals of your security program to be in place, and functioning. Ensure up-to-date system patching, restricting access, and diligent logging provides defenders with the necessary tools to spot such threats. Instead of relying on Indicators of Compromise (IOCs), introducing a behavioral analysis approach to detections can underscore unusual system behavior, signaling the need for deeper scrutiny. It was through this type of analysis that the US Department of State recently pinpointed a cyberattack from China within their Microsoft 365 environment.
KSG has helped a number of clients execute such LOTL campaign hunts—and prepared even more to set up their networks to be able hunt for such activity. Many organizations are not yet in a place to search for such activity, despite falling into China’s crosshairs for cyber coercion.
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