Members of the Uyghur Muslim community in China and abroad are being targeted in a surveillance efforts by likely “Chinese-speaking” hackers through the use of fake emails from the United Nations (U.N.) and a human rights group, cybersecurity researchers announced Thursday.
The findings were part of a joint collaboration between cybersecurity groups Check Point Research and Kaspersky’s Global Research & Analysis Team, which concluded with “low to medium confidence” that the effort was carried out by Chinese-speaking hackers.
The researchers found that the hackers were targeting Uyghurs in both China and Pakistan using malicious emails designed to trick individuals into installing a back door into Microsoft Windows software to allow the hackers to collect information and carry out further attacks.
The emails are sent under the guise of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council or from a fake human rights organization known as the Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation, both of which target Uyghurs applying for grant funds. The emails either used malicious downloaded documents or links to fake websites to install the back door.
“We believe that these cyberattacks are motivated by espionage, with the endgame of the operation being the installation of a back door into the computers of high-profile targets in the Uyghur community,” Lotem Finkelsteen, the head of threat intelligence at Check Point, said in a statement provided to The Hill.
“The attacks are designed to fingerprint infected devices, including all of its running programs. From what we can tell, these attacks are ongoing, and new infrastructure is being created for what looks like future attacks,” Finkelsteen added.
The researchers concluded that both members of the Uyghur community and organizations supporting them were selected as specific targets by the hackers, with the attacks likely still ongoing.
The Chinese government has cracked down hard on the Uyghur Muslim community in recent years. The minority group mostly lives in the Xinjiang province of China. The nation has been condemned internationally for human rights abuses, with countries including the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and the Netherlands declaring the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs a genocide.
The new hacking effort against the Uyghur population is not the first.
Facebook announced in March that it had disrupted efforts of Chinese hacking groups to target and surveil members of the Uyghur community in China and other countries through installing malware on mobile devices.