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People's Republic of China-Linked Cyber Actors Hide in Router Firmware


27 Sept 2023

The United States National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the Japan National Police Agency (NPA), and the Japan National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC) (hereafter referred to as the “authoring agencies”) are releasing this joint cybersecurity advisory (CSA) to detail activity of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)-linked cyber actors known as BlackTech. BlackTech has demonstrated capabilities in modifying router firmware without detection and exploiting routers’ domain-trust relationships for pivoting from international subsidiaries to headquarters in Japan and the U.S. — the primary targets. The authoring agencies recommend implementing the mitigations described to detect this activity and protect devices from the backdoors the BlackTech actors are leaving behind.

BlackTech (a.k.a. Palmerworm, Temp.Overboard, Circuit Panda, and Radio Panda) actors have targeted government, industrial, technology, media, electronics, and telecommunication sectors, including entities that support the militaries of the U.S. and Japan. BlackTech actors use custom malware, dual-use tools, and living off the land tactics, such as disabling logging on routers, to conceal their operations. This CSA details BlackTech’s tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), which highlights the need for multinational corporations to review all subsidiary connections, verify access, and consider implementing Zero Trust models to limit the extent of a potential BlackTech compromise.


Active since 2010, BlackTech actors have historically targeted a wide range of U.S. and East Asia public organizations and private industries. BlackTech actors’ TTPs include developing customized malware and tailored persistence mechanisms for compromising routers. These TTPs allow the actors to disable logging [T1562] and abuse trusted domain relationships [T1199] to pivot between international subsidiaries and domestic headquarters’ networks.

Observable TTPs

BlackTech cyber actors use custom malware payloads and remote access tools (RATs) to target victims’ operating systems. The actors have used a range of custom malware families targeting Windows®, Linux®, and FreeBSD® operating systems.

BlackTech actors continuously update these tools to evade detection [TA0005] by security software. The actors also use stolen code-signing certificates [T1588.003] to sign the malicious payloads, which make them appear legitimate and therefore more difficult for security software to detect [T1553.002].

BlackTech actors use living off the land TTPs to blend in with normal operating system and network activities, allowing them to evade detection by endpoint detection and response (EDR) products. Common methods of persistence on a host include NetCat shells, modifying the victim registry [T1112] to enable the remote desktop protocol (RDP) [T1021.001], and secure shell (SSH) [T1021.004]. The actors have also used SNScan for enumeration [TA0007], and a local file transfer protocol (FTP) server [T1071.002] to move data through the victim network. For additional examples of malicious cyber actors living off the land, see People's Republic of China State-Sponsored Cyber Actor Living off the Land to Evade Detection.

Specifically, upon gaining an initial foothold into a target network and gaining administrator access to network edge devices, BlackTech cyber actors often modify the firmware to hide their activity across the edge devices to further maintain persistence in the network. To extend their foothold across an organization, BlackTech actors target branch routers—typically smaller appliances used at remote branch offices to connect to a corporate headquarters—and then abuse the trusted relationship [T1199] of the branch routers within the corporate network being targeted. BlackTech actors then use the compromised public-facing branch routers as part of their infrastructure for proxying traffic [TA0011], blending in with corporate network traffic, and pivoting to other victims on the same corporate network [T1090.002].

Maintaining access via stealthy router backdoors

BlackTech has targeted and exploited various brands and versions of router devices. TTPs against routers enable the actors to conceal configuration changes, hide commands, and disable logging while BlackTech actors conduct operations. BlackTech actors have compromised several Cisco® routers using variations of a customized firmware backdoor [T1542.004]. The backdoor functionality is enabled and disabled through specially crafted TCP or UDP packets [T1205]. This TTP is not solely limited to Cisco routers, and similar techniques could be used to enable backdoors in other network equipment.

In some cases, BlackTech actors replace the firmware for certain Cisco IOS®-based routers with malicious firmware.

BlackTech actors may also hide their presence and obfuscate changes made to compromised Cisco routers by hiding Embedded Event Manager (EEM) policies—a feature usually used in Cisco IOS to automate tasks that execute upon specified events—that manipulate Cisco IOS Command-Line Interface (CLI) command results. On a compromised router, the BlackTech-created EEM policy waits for specific commands to execute obfuscation measures or deny execution of specified legitimate commands.

Mitigation Techniques

The following are the best mitigation practices to defend against this type of malicious activity:

  • Disable outbound connections by applying the "transport output none" configuration command to the virtual teletype (VTY) lines. This command will prevent some copy commands from successfully connecting to external systems.

    Note: An adversary with unauthorized privileged level access to a network device could revert this configuration change.

  • Monitor both inbound and outbound connections from network devices to both external and internal systems. In general, network devices should only be connecting to nearby devices for exchanging routing or network topology information or with administrative systems for time synchronization, logging, authentication, monitoring, etc. If feasible, block unauthorized outbound connections from network devices by applying access lists or rule sets to other nearby network devices. Additionally, place administrative systems in separate virtual local area networks (VLANs) and block all unauthorized traffic from network devices destined for non-administrative VLANs.

  • Limit access to administration services and only permit IP addresses used by network administrators by applying access lists to the VTY lines or specific services. Monitor logs for successful and unsuccessful login attempts with the "login on-failure log" and "login on-success log" configuration commands, or by reviewing centralized Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA) events.

  • Upgrade devices to ones that have secure boot capabilities with better integrity and authenticity checks for bootloaders and firmware. In particular, highly prioritize replacing all end-of-life and unsupported equipment as soon as possible.

  • When there is a concern that a single password has been compromised, change all passwords and keys.

  • Review logs generated by network devices and monitor for unauthorized reboots, operating system version changes, changes to the configuration, or attempts to update the firmware. Compare against expected configuration changes and patching plans to verify that the changes are authorized.

  • Periodically perform both file and memory verification described in the Network Device Integrity (NDI) Methodology documents to detect unauthorized changes to the software stored and running on network devices.

  • Monitor for changes to firmware. Periodically take snapshots of boot records and firmware and compare against known good images.

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