In research presented at the ongoing RSA security conference, FireEye researchers Fred Plan, Nalani Fraser, Jacqueline O’Leary, Vincent Cannon and Ben Read said they could say with a moderate level of confidence that the group behind the operation was APT40.
A report from the threat intelligence firm Recorded Future in November outlined similar activities by a group it did not name, this time targeting an engineering company based in Britain.
FireEye said China had seized a US Navy unmanned underwater vehicle in December 2016 and within months APT 40 was observed to be masquerading as a UUV manufacturer and targeting universities engaged in naval research.
"That incident was one of many carried out to acquire advanced technology to support the development of Chinese naval capabilities," the researchers wrote. "We believe APT40’s emphasis on maritime issues and naval technology ultimately support China’s ambition to establish a blue-water navy."
Analysis of the times when the group was operational indicated that it was at China Standard Time (UTC +8).
"In addition, multiple APT40 command and control domains were initially registered by China-based domain resellers and had Whois records with Chinese location information, suggesting a China based infrastructure procurement process," the researchers said.
Additionally, they pointed out that APT40 had used multiple IP addresses located in China to conduct its operations.
"In one instance, a log file recovered from an open indexed server revealed that an IP address (18.104.22.168) located in Hainan, China, had been used to administer the command and control node that was communicating with malware on victim machines. All of the logins to this C2 were from computers configured with Chinese language settings."
FireEye has a write-up of its findings here.