Operation RAT Cook: Chinese APT actors use fake Game of Thrones leaks as lures

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Proofpoint recently observed a targeted email campaign attempting a spearphishing attack using a Game of Thrones lure. The malicious attachment, which offered salacious spoilers and video clips, attempted to install a “9002” remote access Trojan (RAT) historically used by state-sponsored actors. Previous attacks involving the 9002 RAT include:

  • Operation Aurora, an attack on companies such as Google, widely attributed to the Chinese government [1,2]
  • Operation Ephemeral Hydra, a strategic website compromise utilizing an Internet Explorer zero-day [3], which FireEye attributed to an APT actor without a country attribution
  • Attacks on Asian countries described by Palo Alto [4]

Once installed, the 9002 RAT provides attackers with extensive data exfiltration capabilities.

Email Message

On August 10 Proofpoint detected malicious email messages (Figure 1) purporting to contain unreleased Game of Thrones content. The email used the subject line "Wanna see the Game of Thrones in advance?" These lures are especially relevant since Season 7 of Game of Thrones premiered in July and concludes on Sunday, August 27, and the email claims to contain spoilers for the current season. It is worth noting that episodes 4 and 6 were already leaked; it is unlikely that responding to the lure would actually net a recipient new, unreleased episodes, particularly considering that the final episode airs this weekend.

Email message with potential spoilers containing a .docx attachment

Figure 1: Email message with the potential spoilers (redacted) containing a .docx attachment

The email shown in Figure 1 contains a Microsoft Word attachment named "game of thrones preview.docx” (Figure 2). Similar to the email, the document uses a lure listing potential spoilers and claims to contain a preview of the purported spoilers. In reality, the “preview” is an embedded .LNK (an OLE packager shell object) that, if run, executes a malicious PowerShell script leading to the installation of the diskless “9002” RAT.

.docx document attachment containing malicious .LNK packager object

Figure 2: .docx document attachment containing a malicious .LNK packager object

Payload Analysis

When the embedded .LNK object is executed by the potential victim, it runs a PowerShell command using a modified Invoke-Shellcode [5] PowerShell script to download two files obfuscated using XOR and base64. The first downloaded file contains the 9002 RAT shellcode that is injected into a legitimate Windows Mail binary wabmig.exe. (Fig. 3). The other downloaded file is a .LNK file that is used as a means to maintain persistence on the infected machine. The HTTP requests to retrieve the encoded payloads are fairly basic and do not attempt to masquerade as a legitimate browser request (Fig. 4). Interestingly, if the same URI is requested with any type of User-Agent then a legitimate JPG is returned (Fig. 5). The persistence .LNK is stored in the Startup directory as UpdateCheck.lnk and contains a PowerShell script that is almost identical to the .LNK downloader. However, instead of downloading the shellcode, it opens, decodes, and injects the already downloaded shellcode into a newly created wabmig.exe process.

Excerpt from PowerShell script found in LNK package

Figure 3: Excerpt from PowerShell script found in the LNK package

HTTP request to download encoded payload

Figure 4: HTTP request to download encoded payload

HTTP request with User-Agent receiving legitimate JPG instead of payload

Figure 5: HTTP request with User-Agent receiving legitimate JPG instead of payload

This variant of 9002 is capable of communicating over both HTTP and what appears to be fake SSL. The fake SSL component contains at least two hardcoded packets: one for the Client_Hello and another for the Client_Key_Exchange. Most of the hardcoded values, such as the Session ID (Fig. 6,7), stay the same. However, the Random fields are dynamically generated (GMT Unix Time and Random Bytes). Finally, the Client_Hello attempts to mimic SSL traffic to login.live[.]com by sending that domain in the SNI field (Fig. 8).

Client_Hello hardcoded Session ID in 9002

Figure 6: Client_Hello hardcoded Session ID in 9002

Client_Hello hardcoded Session ID appearing in network traffic

Figure 7: Client_Hello hardcoded Session ID appearing in network traffic

Legitimate login.live[.]com domain in SNI field sent to C andC

Figure 8: Legitimate login.live[.]com domain in SNI field sent to the C&C

The HTTP traffic and encoding that is utilized in this variant of 9002 has several distinguishing characteristics. Data sent to the command and control (C&C) in the HTTP POST’s client body is transmitted in an encoded state using a custom algorithm followed by base64-encoding (Fig. 9).

HTTP POST request sent to 9002 C and C

Figure 9: HTTP POST request sent to 9002 C&C

Several of the headers are hardcoded including the Accept and User-Agent headers:

  • Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml,*/*
  • User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 9.0; Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; Trident/5.0)

In addition, there are two different hardcoded URIs (Fig. 10):

  • /?FORM=Desktop&setmkt=en-us&setlang=en-us
  • /config/signin

A dynamically generated URI could also be used in the following format: “/%x.htm?”.

HTTP Post request sent to 9002 showing another hardcoded URI

Figure 10: HTTP Post request sent to 9002 showing another hardcoded URI

The encoding algorithm used in this version is an iteration of the “4-byte XOR version of 9002” analyzed by FireEye [3]. Instead of the standard dynamic 4-byte XOR operation that is used in the older variant, a dynamic 4-byte XOR key is used along with a static 38-byte seed of “\x3A\x42\x46\x41\x53\x41\x39\x41\x46\x2D\x44\x38\x37\x32\x6D\xF1\x51\x4A\xC0\x2D\x3A\x43\x31\x30\x2D\x30\x30\x43\x30\x35\x4A\x4D\x39\xF3\xD3\x38\x2B\x7D” to generate a final 256-byte XOR key. To generate the final key, first the 38-byte seed is used with an iterative addition to generate a 256-byte value (Fig. 11).

256-byte seed initialization using iterative addition and static 38-byte seed value

Figure 11: 256-byte seed initialization using iterative addition and static 38-byte seed value

Next, the first 4-bytes of the encoded data are XOR’ed with the 256-byte value to generate the final 256-byte XOR key (Fig. 12). This key is then XOR’ed with the rest of the encoded data. (Fig. 13)

Generation of final 256-byte XOR key

Figure 12: Generation of final 256-byte XOR key

XOR’ing data with final 256-byte XOR key

Figure 13: XOR’ing data with final 256-byte XOR key

Similar to previous versions of 9002, a value resembling a date (“\x17\x05\x15\x20”) is hardcoded in the malware and can be found at offset 0x1C in beacons sent to its C&C (Fig. 14).

Decoded 9002 traffic sent to its C and C showing hardcoded value

Figure 14: Decoded 9002 traffic sent to its C&C showing the hardcoded value

The value likely represents the date May 17, 2015, but we are not aware if this date has any significance. An additional value, 201707, is hardcoded in this variant which likely refers to July 2017 (Fig. 15).

Hardcoded 201707 in 9002 variant

Figure 15: Hardcoded 201707 in 9002 variant

This is the most likely explanation, given that the earliest use of the malicious LNK PowerShell downloader (sha256: 9e49d214e2325597b6d648780cf8980f4cc16811b21f586308e3e9866f40d1cd) we have identified is a compressed file (sha256: bdd695363117ba9fb23a7cbcd484d79e7a469c11ab9a6e2ad9a50c678097f100) uploaded to a malicious file scanning service on July 6, 2017. The modified timestamp for the files contained in the ZIP file is July 1, 2017. The ZIP package contains four copies of the same LNK that was used in the Game of Thrones attack as well as a legitimate JPG of what appears to be a stock picture of a “party.” We have also identified a third possible campaign utilizing the same LNK in a DOCX document attachment named “need help.docx” (Fig. 16). In this instance, the lure is to double-click on a LNK masquerading as a video.

Malicious document utilizing same LNK as ZIP and Game of Thrones document

Figure 16: Malicious document utilizing same LNK as ZIP and Game of Thrones document

Similar 2014 Campaigns

While searching for other potentially related campaigns we discovered a nexus of activity occurring at least as far back as April 2014. Several ZIP compressed files containing a similar LNK downloader (Fig. 17) were uploaded to a malicious file scanning service.

Malicious LNK PowerShell downloader observed in archives

Figure 17: Malicious LNK PowerShell downloader observed in archives from 2014

All five of the archives contained a similar stock picture of a party as well as multiple copies of the malicious LNK with party picture-themed names. The LNK PowerShell downloader uses similar paths to the recent attacks as well as the same “/x/” URI. Instead of using code injection however, a packed executable (PE) is embedded in the PowerShell script, saved as x.exe, and is used to execute the downloaded payload that is saved as y.exe. An additional similarity is that the LNKs from the 2014 archives share the same Volume Serial Number as the LNK from the recent attacks (0xCC9CE694). The volume serial number is metadata found in the LNK file; since they match, we know it is more likely that they were created on the device or using the same builder. It is possible to fake these values however we do not believe that likely in this case.

Unfortunately we do not know what payload was hosted at mn1[.]org. However, two of the ZIP archives contained a Java payload named PhotoShow.jar that ultimately executes a diskless 9002 variant with a C&C of mx[.]i26[.]org. This variant has a hardcoded identifier of “\x28\x02\x13\x20” (Fig. 18).

9002 hardcoded identifier

Figure 18: 9002 hardcoded identifier


Based on several shared identifiers, it is possible that the recent campaigns were conducted by the same actor that conducted the campaigns in early- to mid-2014. The malicious LNK files in both campaigns (2014 vs. 2017) have the same Volume Serial Number of 0xCC9CE694. Furthermore, the LNK filename used in one of the campaigns this year is almost identical to the campaigns in 2014: Party00[1-35].jpg.lnk (2017) vs. Party-00[1-5].jpg.lnk (2014). Finally, the theme of party pictures and stock-JPGs used in both the 2017 and 2014 campaigns are extremely similar.

The 2014 campaign resembles activity previously attributed to the Deputy Dog (aka APT17) actor. Additionally, the Deputy Dog actor has been observed utilizing a similar 9002 RAT with an earlier iteration of the 4-byte XOR encoding algorithm in diskless mode [3]. Another possible similarity is the use of some of the code from the Java Reverse Metasploit-Stager [6] in the exploits previously analyzed by FireEye as well as the PhotoShow.jar payload. Although we do not possess any definitive evidence linking this activity to Deputy Dog, there are enough similarities to support a possible connection.


Based on similarities in code, payload, file names, images, and themes, it is possible that this attack was carried out by a Chinese state-sponsored actor known as Deputy Dog. The use of a Game of Thrones lure during the penultimate season of the series follows a common threat actor technique of developing lures that are timely and relevant, and play on the human factor - the natural curiosity and desire to click that leads to so many malware infections. While Proofpoint systems blocked this attack, the use of such lures, combined with sophisticated delivery mechanisms and powerful tools like the latest version of the 9002 RAT can open wide doors into corporate data and systems for the actors behind these attacks.


[1] https://community.saas.hpe.com/t5/Security-Research/9002-RAT-a-second-building-on-the-left/ba-p/228686#.WaBdzB9ifW8

[2] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/mar/24/cyber-attack-on-us-firms-google-traced-to-chinese/

[3] https://paper.seebug.org/papers/APT/APT_CyberCriminal_Campagin/2013/Operation_EphemeralHydra.pdf

[4] https://researchcenter.paloaltonetworks.com/2016/07/unit-42-attack-delivers-9002-trojan-through-google-drive/

[5] https://github.com/EmpireProject/Empire/blob/master/data/module_source/code_execution/Invoke-Shellcode.ps1

[6] http://security-is-just-an-illusion.blogspot.nl/2013/02/45-x-antivirus-software-fail-again-java.html

Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)


IOC Type




9002 Shellcode



Persistence LNK



9002 C2



LNK Object



%APPDATA%\y.jpg encoded 9002 shellcode



game of thrones preview.docx






need help.docx

2014 IOCs



























Upins_tmp.exe (dropped by PhotoShow.jar)



Party-001.jpg.lnk C&C



PhotoShow.jar C&C


ET and ETPRO Suricata/Snort Signatures

2827624 ETPRO TROJAN Possible APT.9002 Fileless Variant CnC Beacon 1

2827625 ETPRO TROJAN Possible APT.9002 Fileless Variant CnC Beacon 2

2827661 ETPRO TROJAN Possible APT.9002 Fake SSL CnC Beacon