A new data leak that appears to have come from one of China’s top private cybersecurity firms provides a rare glimpse into the commercial side of China’s many state-sponsored hacking groups. Experts say the leak illustrates how Chinese government agencies increasingly are contracting out foreign espionage campaigns to the nation’s burgeoning and highly competitive cybersecurity industry.
A large cache of more than 500 documents published to GitHub last week indicate the records come from i-SOON, a technology company headquartered in Shanghai that is perhaps best known for providing cybersecurity training courses throughout China. But the leaked documents, which include candid employee chat conversations and images, show a less public side of i-SOON, one that frequently initiates and sustains cyberespionage campaigns commissioned by various Chinese government agencies.
The leaked documents suggest i-SOON employees were responsible for a raft of cyber intrusions over many years, infiltrating government systems in the United Kingdom and countries throughout Asia. Although the cache does not include raw data stolen from cyber espionage targets, it features numerous documents listing the level of access gained and the types of data exposed in each intrusion.
Security experts who reviewed the leaked data say they believe the information is legitimate, and that i-SOON works closely with China’s Ministry of State Security and the military. In 2021, the Sichuan provincial government named i-SOON as one of “the top 30 information security companies.”
“The leak provides some of the most concrete details seen publicly to date, revealing the maturing nature of China’s cyber espionage ecosystem,” said Dakota Cary, a China-focused consultant at the security firm SentinelOne. “It shows explicitly how government targeting requirements drive a competitive marketplace of independent contractor hackers-for-hire.”
Mei Danowski is a former intelligence analyst and China expert who now writes about her research in a Substack publication called Natto Thoughts. Danowski said i-SOON has achieved the highest secrecy classification that a non-state-owned company can receive, which qualifies the company to conduct classified research and development related to state security.
i-SOON’s “business services” webpage states that the company’s offerings include public security, anti-fraud, blockchain forensics, enterprise security solutions, and training. Danowski said that in 2013, i-SOON established a department for research on developing new APT network penetration methods.
APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat, a term that generally refers to state-sponsored hacking groups. Indeed, among the documents apparently leaked from i-SOON is a sales pitch slide boldly highlighting the hacking prowess of the company’s “APT research team” (see screenshot above).
The leaked documents included a lengthy chat conversation between the company’s founders, who repeatedly discuss flagging sales and the need to secure more employees and government contracts. Danowski said the CEO of i-SOON, Wu Haibo (“Shutdown” in the leaked chats) is a well-known first-generation red hacker or “Honker,” and an early member of Green Army — the very first Chinese hacktivist group founded in 1997. Mr. Haibo has not yet responded to a request for comment.
In October 2023, Danowski detailed how i-SOON became embroiled in a software development contract dispute when it was sued by a competing Chinese cybersecurity company called Chengdu 404. In September 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments against multiple Chengdu 404 employees, charging that the company was a facade that hid more than a decade’s worth of cyber intrusions attributed to a threat actor group known as “APT 41.”
Danowski said the existence of this legal dispute suggests that Chengdu 404 and i-SOON have or at one time had a business relationship, and that one company likely served as a subcontractor to the other on specific cyber espionage campaigns.
“From what they chat about we can see this is a very competitive industry, where companies in this space are constantly poaching each others’ employees and tools,” Danowski said. “The infosec industry is always trying to distinguish [the work] of one APT group from another. But that’s getting harder to do.”
It remains unclear if i-SOON’s work has earned it a unique APT designation. But Will Thomas, a cyber threat intelligence researcher at Equinix, found an Internet address in the leaked data that corresponds to a domain flagged in a 2019 Citizen Lab report about one-click mobile phone exploits that were being used to target groups in Tibet. The 2019 report referred to the threat actor behind those attacks as an APT group called Poison Carp. Continue reading