TA416 Goes to Ground and Returns with a Golang PlugX Malware Loader

Executive Summary 

Following the Chinese National Day holiday in September, Proofpoint researchers observed a resumption of activity by the APT actor TA416. Historic campaigns by this actor have also been publicly attributed to “Mustang Panda” and “RedDelta”. This new activity appears to be a continuation of previously reported campaigns that have targeted entities associated with diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party, as well as entities in Myanmar. The targeting of organizations conducting diplomacy in Africa has also been observed. Proofpoint researchers have identified updates to the actor’s toolset which is used to deliver PlugX malware payloads. Specifically, researchers identified a new Golang variant of TA416’s PlugX malware loader and identified consistent usage of PlugX malware in targeted campaigns. As this group continues to be publicly reported on by security researchers, they exemplify a persistence in the modification of their toolset to frustrate analysis and evade detection. While baseline changes to their payloads do not greatly increase the difficulty of attributing TA416 campaigns, they do make automated detection and execution of malware components independent from the infection chain more challenging for researchers. This may represent efforts by the group to continue their pursuit of espionage objectives while maintaining an embattled toolset and staying out of the daily Twitter conversation popular amongst threat researchers. 

Renewed Phishing Activity 

After nearly a month of inactivity following publications by threat researchers, Proofpoint analysts have identified limited signs of renewed phishing activity that can be attributed to the Chinese APT group TA416 (also referred to as Mustang Panda and RedDelta) 1. Recorded Future researchers have previously noted historic periods of dormancy following disclosure of TA416’s targeted campaigns.2 This most recent period of inactivity encompassed September 16, 2020 through October 10, 2020. Notably this time period included the Chinese National holiday referred to as National Day and the following unofficial vacation period “Golden Week”. The resumption of phishing activity by TA416 included a continued use of social engineering lures referencing the provisional agreement recently renewed between the Vatican Holy See and the Chinese Communist Party “CCP”.3 Additionally, spoofed email header from fields were observed that appear to imitate journalists from the Union of Catholic Asia News. This confluence of themed social engineering content suggests a continued focus on matters pertaining to the evolving relationship between the Catholic Church and the “CCP”. 

PlugX Malware Analysis 

Proofpoint researchers identified two RAR archives which serve as PlugX malware droppers. One of these files was found to be a self-extracting RAR archive. For the purposes of this analysis the self-extracting archive file AdobelmdyU.exe|930b7a798e3279b7460e30ce2f3a2deccbc252f3ca213cb022f5b7e6a25a0867 was examined. The initial delivery vector for these RAR archives could not be identified. However, historically TA416 has been observed including Google Drive and Dropbox URLs within phishing emails that deliver archives containing PlugX malware and related components. Once the RAR archive is extracted four files are installed on the host and the portable executable Adobelm.exe is executed. The installed files include: 

  • Adobelm.exe|0459e62c5444896d5be404c559c834ba455fa5cae1689c70fc8c61bc15468681 

A legitimate Adobe executable used in the DLL Side-Loading of Hex.dll. 

  • Adobehelp.exe|e3e3c28f7a96906e6c30f56e8e6b013e42b5113967d6fb054c32885501dfd1b7 

An unused binary that has been previously observed in malicious RAR archives linked to TA416. 

  • hex.dll|235752f22f1a21e18e0833fc26e1cdb4834a56ee53ec7acb8a402129329c0cdd 

A Golang binary which decrypts and loads adobeupdate.dat (the PlugX payload). 

  • adobeupdate.dat|afa06df5a2c33dc0bdf80bbe09dade421b3e8b5990a56246e0d7053d5668d91 

 The encrypted PlugX malware payload. 

 

Figure 1: PlugX Malware Execution Diagram 

Following RAR extraction, Adobelm.exe, a legitimate PE that is used for the DLL side-loading of hex.dll, is executed. It calls a PE export function of hex.dll named CEFProcessForkHandlerEx. Historically, TA416 campaigns have used the file name hex.dll and the same PE export name to achieve DLL side-loading for a Microsoft Windows PE DLL. These files served as loaders and decryptors of encrypted PlugX malware payloads. The file would read, load, decrypt, and execute the PlugX malware payload (regularly named adobeupdate.dat, as it is in this case).  

The PlugX malware loader found in this case was identified as a Golang binary. Proofpoint has not previously observed this file type in use by TA416. Both identified RAR archives were found to drop the same encrypted PlugX malware file and Golang loader samples. The Golang loader has a compilation creation time that dates it to June 24, 2020. However, the command and control infrastructure discussed later in this posting suggests that the PlugX malware payload and Golang loader variant were used after August 24, 2020. Despite the file type of the PlugX loader changing, the functionality remains largely the same. It reads the file adobeupdate.dat, retrieves the XOR key beginning at offset x00 and continues until it reads a null byte. It then decrypts the payload, and finally executes the decrypted adobeupdate.dat. This results in the execution of the PlugX malware payload which ultimately calls out to the command and control IP 45.248.87[.]162. The following registry key is also created during this process which runs at startup establishing the malware’s persistence. Notably the sample uses the distinct file installation directory “AdobelmdyU”. 

Registry Key 

Data 

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run\AdobelmdyU 

 

  

"C:\ProgramData\Adobe\AdobelmdyU\Adobelm.exe" 402 

Figure 2: PlugX malware Registry Key established for malware persistence. 

Consistent TA416 Tools 

The PlugX malware payload, unlike the Golang loader variant, seems to remain consistent when compared with previous versions.  

  • Historical analysis conducted by Avira and Recorded Future has documented that the encrypted PlugX payloads, which have been disguised as data and gif files, are in fact encrypted PE DLL files. These encrypted files contain a hardcoded XOR decryption key that begins at offset x00 and continues until a null byte is read.4 In this case the Golang Binary PlugX loader reads the encryption key in the same manner from x00 to null byte, with the hardcoded key ending at offset x09. This represents continued usage of an anti-analysis method which makes the execution of PlugX payloads more complex and complicates the detection of command and control infrastructure which the malware communicates with. 

 

Hardcoded Decryption Key / Byte Sequence 

66 59 50 6C 79 73 43 46 6C 6B 

Figure 3: PlugX malware XOR decryption key. 

 Figure 4: PlugX malware byte sequence and hardcoded XOR decryption key. 

  • Following decryption, the resulting file reflects a valid PE header for the PlugX malware payload. Shellcode appears between the MZ header and the DOS message. The function of this shellcode is to write the PE DLL into RWX memory and begin execution at the beginning of the file. This establishes an entry point for the payload and prevents an entry point not found error when executing the malware. This is a common technique observed by many malware families and is not exclusive to TA416 PlugX variants. This shellcode is unlikely to appear in legitimate software DLLs.Figure 5: PlugX malware byte sequence and XOR decryption key.

Command and Control Infrastructure 

The command and control communication observed by these PlugX malware samples are consistent with previously documented versions. The C2 traffic was successfully detected by an existing Proofpoint Emerging Threats Suricata signature for PlugX malware which is publicly available as part of the ET OPEN public ruleset.5 The following IP and example command and control communication URLs were identified: 

  • 45.248.87[.]162 

  • hxxp://45.248.87[.]162/756d1598 

  • hxxp://45.248.87[.]162/9f86852b 

Further research regarding the command and control IP indicated that it was hosted by the Chinese Internet Service Provider Anchnet Asia Limited. It appeared to be active and in use as a command and control server from at least August 24, 2020 through September 28, 2020. It is notable that this time period predates the period of dormancy discussed above that likely resulted from Recorded Future’s publication on TA416 activity. Additionally, it indicates that this server ceased being used during this dormancy period possibly indicating an infrastructure overhaul by actors during this time. 

 Figure 6: RiskIQ data indicating TA416 command and control server’s period of activity. 

Conclusion 

Continued activity by TA416 demonstrates a persistent adversary making incremental changes to documented toolsets so that they can remain effective in carrying out espionage campaigns against global targets. The introduction of a Golang PlugX loader alongside continued encryption efforts for PlugX payloads suggest that the group may be conscious of increased detection for their tools and it demonstrates adaptation in response to publications regarding their campaigns. These tool adjustments combined with recurrent command and control infrastructure revision suggests that TA416 will persist in their targeting of diplomatic and religious organizations. While the specifics of the tools and procedures have evolved it appears their motivation and targeted sectors likely remain consistent. TA416 continues to embody the persistent aspect of “APT” actors and Proofpoint analysts expect to continue to detect this activity in the coming months. 

IOCs 

IOC 

IOC Type 

Description 

930b7a798e3279b7460e30ce2f3a2deccbc252f3ca213cb022f5b7e6a25a0867 

SHA256 

AdobelmdyU.exe                                                     RAR Archive Containing PlugX  

6a5b0cfdaf402e94f892f66a0f53e347d427be4105ab22c1a9f259238c272b60 

SHA256 

Adobel.exe                                                                    Self Extracting RAR Archive Containing PlugX  

0459e62c5444896d5be404c559c834ba455fa5cae1689c70fc8c61bc15468681 

SHA256 

Adobelm.exe                                                      Legitimate PE that loads Golang PlugX Loader 

235752f22f1a21e18e0833fc26e1cdb4834a56ee53ec7acb8a402129329c0cdd 

SHA256 

hex.dll                                                                          Golang binary PlugX Loader 

e3e3c28f7a96906e6c30f56e8e6b013e42b5113967d6fb054c32885501dfd1b7 

SHA256 

AdobeHelp.exe                                                         Unused PE File 

afa06df5a2c33dc0bdf80bbe09dade421b3e8b5990a56246e0d7053d5668d917 

SHA256 

adobeupdate.dat                                                      Encrypted PlugX Payload 

45.248.87[.]162 

C2 IP 

Command and control IP 

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Wow6432Node 

\Microsoft\ Windows\CurrentVersion\Run\AdobelmdyU 

RegKey 

Registry Key that establishes PlugX malware persistence. 

Emerging Threats Signatures  

  • 2018228 - et trojan possible plugx common header struct 

 

References: 

1 Chinese State-Sponsored Group ‘RedDelta’ Targets the Vatican and Catholic Organizations 

2 Back Despite Disruption: RedDelta Resumes Operations

3 Holy See and China renew Provisional Agreement for 2 years

4 New wave of PlugX targets Hong Kong

5 Emerging Threats Ruleset

 

Subscribe to the Proofpoint Blog