China launched cyber attack targeting India’s power grid , US media reports

According to New York Times, Chinese malware was flowing into the control systems that manage electric supply across India, along with a high-voltage transmission substation and a coal-fired power plant during the Indo-China standoff.

By Harkirpal Singh, Updated : Mar 01, 2021 15:11 IST
 China launched cyber attack targeting India’s power grid , US media reports
Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army Strategic Support Force

According to a leading news portal The Print, Amid the current India-China border, a Chinese government-linked group of hackers targeted India’s critical power grid system through malware, a US company has claimed in its latest study, raising suspicion whether last year’s massive power outage in Mumbai as a result of the online intrusion.

Recorded Future, a Massachusetts-based company that studies the use of the internet by state actors, in its recent report explains the campaign conducted by a China-linked threat activity group RedEcho targeting the Indian power sector.

The activity was identified through a combination of large-scale automated network traffic analytics and expert analysis. Data sources include the Recorded Future Platform, SecurityTrails, Spur, Farsight, and common open-source tools and techniques, the report said.

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On October 12, a grid failure in Mumbai resulted in massive power outages, stopping trains on tracks, hampering those working from home amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and hitting the stuttering economic activity hard.

It took two hours for the power supply to resume for essential services, prompting Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to order an inquiry into the incident. 

There was no immediate response from the Indian government on the study by the US company. Since early 2020, Recorded Future’s Insikt Group observed a large increase in suspected targeted intrusion activity against Indian organizations from the Chinese state-sponsored group.

The New York Times, in a report, said that the discovery raises the question about whether the Mumbai outage was meant as a message from Beijing about what might happen if India pushed its border claims too vigorously.

According to the Recorded Future report, from mid-2020 onwards, Recorded Future’s midpoint collection revealed a steep rise in the use of infrastructure tracked as AXIOMATICASYMPTOTE, which encompasses ShadowPad command and control (C2) servers, to target a large swathe of India’s power sector.

Ten distinct Indian power sector organizations, including four of the five Regional Load Despatch Centres (RLDC) responsible for the operation of the power grid through balancing electricity supply and demand, have been identified as targets in a concerted campaign against India’s critical infrastructure.

Other targets identified included two Indian seaports, it said. According to the report, the targeting of Indian critical infrastructure offers limited economic espionage opportunities.

However, we assess they pose significant concerns over potential pre-positioning of network access to support Chinese strategic objectives, it said.

Pre-positioning on energy assets may support several potential outcomes, including geostrategic signaling during heightened bilateral tensions, supporting influence operations, or as a precursor to kinetic escalation, Recorded Future said.

RedEcho has strong infrastructure and victimology overlaps with Chinese groups APT41/Barium and Tonto Team, while ShadowPad is used by at least five distinct Chinese groups, it said.

The high concentration of IPs (Internet Protocols) resolving to Indian critical infrastructure entities communicating over several months with a distinct subset of AXIOMATICASYMPTOTE servers used by RedEcho indicate a targeted campaign, with little evidence of wider targeting in Recorded Future’s network telemetry, it said.

Recorded Future said that in the lead-up to the May 2020 border skirmishes, it observed a noticeable increase in the provisioning of PlugX malware C2 infrastructure, much of which was subsequently used in intrusion activity targeting Indian organizations.

The PlugX activity included the targeting of multiple Indian governments, the public sector, and defense organizations from at least May 2020, it said.

While not unique to Chinese cyber espionage activity, PlugX has been heavily used by China-nexus groups for many years.

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Throughout the remainder of 2020, we identified a heavy focus on the targeting of Indian government and private sector organizations by multiple Chinese state-sponsored threat activity groups, it said.

The Massachusetts-based company’s report came as the armies of the two countries began disengagement of troops locked in over an eight-month-long standoff in eastern Ladakh.

Both countries reached a mutual agreement last month for the disengagement of troops from the most contentious area of the North and south banks of Pangong Lake. 

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