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Chinese Hacker Group Mustang Panda Target Vietnamese Firms

Mustang Panda, with its roots in China, operates with alarming precision, potentially indicating state-affiliated cyberespionage efforts.

by Ashish Khaitan June 11th, 2024

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Recent cyber espionage activities have illuminated the pervasive threat posed by the China-linked hacking group Mustang Panda, as it strategically targets Vietnamese entities.

Analysis by Cyble Research and Intelligence Labs (CRIL) reveals the sophisticated tactics employed by the Mustang Panda Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) in infiltrating government bodies, nonprofits, and educational institutions, among others.

Mustang Panda, with its roots in China, operates with alarming precision, potentially indicating state-affiliated cyberespionage efforts. The group’s reach extends beyond Vietnam, targeting organizations across the U.S., Europe, and various Asian regions, including Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and more.

Researchers Unravel Mustang Panda Campaign

CRIL’s scrutiny of recent attacks in Vietnam uncovers a pattern of deception, with Mustang Panda employing lures centered around tax compliance and the education sector. The campaigns exhibit a multi-layered approach, leveraging legitimate tools like forfiles.exe to execute malicious files hosted remotely. Furthermore, the group harnesses PowerShell, VBScript, and batch files to advance its operations, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of cybersecurity evasion tactics.

One notable aspect of Mustang Panda’s modus operandi is the ingenious embedding of partial lure documents within malicious LNK files, aimed at thwarting detection measures. By blending elements of the lure directly into the files, the hackers increase their payload’s size while evading traditional security protocols.

The intricacy of Mustang Panda’s attacks is exemplified by its use of DLL sideloading techniques to execute malicious code on victim systems. By exploiting vulnerabilities in legitimate executables, the group establishes persistence and opens pathways for further infiltration.

Recent findings also shed light on Mustang Panda’s persistent activities since at least 2014, with documented engagements ranging from governmental targets to NGOs. Notably, a campaign in April 2017 targeting a U.S.-based think tank revealed distinctive tactics indicative of the group’s extensive reach and operational longevity.

Mustang Panda Targets Vietnamese Organizations

In the most recent campaign observed in May 2024, Mustang Panda set its sights on Vietnamese entities with lures related to tax compliance, following a similar approach in April 2024, which targeted the education sector. Both campaigns were initiated with spam emails containing malicious attachments, showcasing the group’s adaptability in exploiting topical themes to maximize success rates.

Technical analysis of the May 2024 campaign unveils the group’s sophisticated maneuvering, including the use of double extensions in malicious files to mask their true nature. This campaign’s payload, disguised as a PDF document, conceals a series of PowerShell commands aimed at downloading and executing further malicious scripts from remote servers.

DLL sideloading emerges as a recurrent theme, with Mustang Panda leveraging legitimate executables to cloak their malicious activities. By camouflaging their actions within routine system processes, the hackers minimize the risk of detection while maintaining access to compromised systems.

The Mustang Panda campaigns highlight the growing threat of cybercriminals, characterized by increasingly sophisticated methodologies. By exploiting vulnerabilities in common software and leveraging social engineering techniques, the group demonstrates a formidable capacity to infiltrate and persist within targeted networks.

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