Amid student protests, Winnti Group targets Hong Kong universities, ESET discovers

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BRATISLAVA, MONTREAL – ESET researchers have recently discovered a new campaign by the Winnti group. This time, Hong Kong universities were the desired target. ESET’s machine-learning engine detected a unique, malicious sample on multiple computers belonging to two Hong Kong universities. In addition to the two confirmed compromised universities, ESET has indications that at least three additional universities may have been affected. The attackers were interested in stealing information from the victims’ machines. This campaign of the Winnti Group was taking place as widespread civic protests swept Hong Kong, including the territory’s universities.

The latest research into Winnti Group, previously responsible for high-profile supply-chain attacks against the video game and software development industry as well as attacks against healthcare and education sectors, confirms that the group is still using its flagship ShadowPad backdoors. However, in the campaign against Hong Kong universities, ShadowPad’s launcher was replaced with a new and simpler version detected by ESET products as Win32/Shadowpad.C.

“Both ShadowPad and Winnti, found at these universities in November 2019, contain campaign identifiers and command & control URLs matching the name of the universities, which indicates a targeted attack,” says Mathieu Tartare, leading ESET researcher into the Winnti Group.

“ShadowPad is a multi-modular backdoor and, by default, every keystroke is recorded using the Keylogger module. The use of this module by default indicates that the attackers are interested in stealing information from the victims’ machines. In contrast, the variants we described in our earlier whitepaper didn’t even have that module embedded,” elaborates Tartare on the discovery.

For more technical details about the latest discovery into the Winnti Group, read the blog post Winnti Group targeting universities in Hong Kong on ESET researchers recently published a whitepaper updating our understanding of the arsenal of the Winnti Group as well. Make sure to follow ESET research on Twitter for the latest news from ESET Research.