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Massive leak reveals extent of China’s foreign hacking activities

Chinese police are currently investigating a massive data leak which originated from a private security contractor with alleged links to Chinese state security. The data, which made its way from the contractor called I-Soon to an upload on code repository, offers an unprecedented insight into the workings of an international cybersecurity operation. 

This is not the first time GitHub has been the source of cybercriminal activity. In January of this year, it was revealed that multiple bad actors were deploying malicious payloads inside of GitHub’s legitimate traffic by exploiting its file and code sharing capabilities. The cybercriminals were also able to redirect this traffic to phishing sites.

As well as outlining hacking activity and some of the tools used by the company, the leaked documents also gave an insider view of the targets. These include at least fourteen international government agencies, universities and perhaps unsurprisingly, Hong Kong agencies. It has to be noted that the authenticity of the documents is still not confirmed, although much of the information tallies with known threat vectors that have originated in the PRC in the past. 

I-Soon, also known as Shanghai Anxun Information Company, was started in Shanghai in 2010, and boasts several offices around China. The company’s website, which is currently offline, showcased a number of cybersecurity services, many of which were outlined in the 190 megabyte leak. The client page listed a number of Chinese regional security bureaus and public security departments, as well as the country’s Ministry of Public Security.

The leaked data is made up of an assortment of documents, screen grabs, and private chat conversations. The list also includes a selection of mundane information, such as complaints over low pay in the company and gambling habits of the employees. One of the interesting parts of the leak is the fact that AI translation has opened up the data to many more analysts than previously possible. The barrier to access is now much lower, with people outside of specialist Sinologists being able to evaluate the information quicker and easier. For example, we were able to use ChatGPT Vision to OCR decode and translate some of the document images in seconds, something that would have taken much longer in the past.

The uploads started sometime in mid-February, with thousands of WeChat messages and marketing documents hitting the Github servers. A large number of sales presentation documents boasting of  the company’s hacking abilities and past exploits are amongst the pile. According to reports, the data explicitly lists terrorism related targets that the company has previously hacked, including some in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The illicit documents also allegedly include the fees earned for some of these hacking projects. For example, one report says the company earned $55,000 for collecting data from a foreign country’s Ministry of Economy. 

There are as yet few or no clues as to the leak culprits—or indeed their motives—but it appears that a Taiwanese analyst discovered the leaked stash on Github, and immediately shared it on their social media. An anonymous employee of I-Soon told the Associated Press that an investigation is currently underway inside the company, and that the employees were told that they should “continue working as normal” while it was underway.

While perhaps not earth shattering in terms of naked content, this breach gives the world a rare and intimate view of the reality at the front line of the murky global espionage business. It turns out that a lot of it is probably not so much James Bond, more office parties and petty employee feuds.


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