- CPR continues tracking Sharp Panda, a long-running Chinese cyber-espionage operation, targeting Southeast Asian government entities
- In late 2022, a campaign with an initial infection vector similar to previous Sharp Panda operations targeted a high-profile government entity in the Asian region.
- CPR zoomes in on the malware used in this campaign, dubbed “the Soul modular framework”
- Check Point’s “Harmony Endpoint” fully protects against the malware described in the research, including all it’s variants.
In 2021, Check Point Research published a report on a previously undisclosed toolset used by Sharp Panda, a long-running Chinese cyber-espionage operation targeting Southeast Asian government entities. Since then, we have continued to track the use of these tools across several operations in multiple Southeast Asian countries, in particular nations with similar territorial claims or strategic infrastructure projects such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia.
The attackers used spear-phishing emails to gain initial access to the targeted networks. These emails typically contained a Word document with government-themed lures that leveraged a remote template to download and run a malicious RTF document, weaponized with the infamous RoyalRoad kit.
While Sharp Panda’s previous campaigns delivered a custom and unique backdoor called VictoryDll, the payload in this specific attack is a new version of SoulSearcher loader, which eventually loads the Soul modular framework. Although samples of this framework from 2017-2021 were previously analyzed, this report is the most extensive look yet at the Soul malware family infection chain, including a full technical analysis of the latest version, compiled in late 2022.
Figure 1 – The infection chain.
Although the Soul malware framework was previously seen in an espionage campaign targeting the defense, healthcare, and ICT sectors in Southeast Asia, it was never previously attributed or connected to any known cluster of malicious activity. Although it is currently not clear if the Soul framework is utilized by a single threat actor, based on our research we can attribute the framework to an APT group with Chinese origins.
None of previous analysis and public reports attributed the Soul framework to any specific country or known actor, although researchers noted the “competent adversarial tradecraft” which they believed indicated a “possibly state-sponsored” group.
In this research, we provide a detailed technical explanation of several malicious stages used in this infection chain and the latest changes implemented in the Soul framework. We also discuss the challenges in attributing these attacks.
The connection between the tools and TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) of Sharp Panda and the previously mentioned attacks in Southeast Asia might serve as yet another example of key characteristics inherent to Chinese-based APT operations, such as sharing custom tools between groups or task specialization, when one entity is responsible for the initial infection and another one performs the actual intelligence gathering.
The later stages of the infection chain in the described campaign are based on Soul, a previously unattributed modular malware framework. While the Soul framework has been in use since at least 2017, the threat actors behind it have been constantly updating and refining its architecture and capabilities. Based on the technical findings presented in our research, we believe this campaign is staged by advanced Chinese-backed threat actors, whose other tools, capabilities, and position within the broader network of espionage activities are yet to be explored.
Check Point customers remain protected
from the threats described in this blog, including all its variants. Endpoint protection and Threat Emulation are offered as part of Harmony Endpoint, Check Point’s complete endpoint security solution. Check Point Provides Zero-Day Protection Across its Network, Cloud, Users, and Access Security Solutions
Read our full technical research