Since 2020, Proofpoint researchers have observed TA416, an actor assessed to be aligned with the Chinese state, utilizing web bugs to profile their targets. Commonly referred to as tracking pixels, web bugs embed a hyperlinked non-visible object within the body of an email that, when enabled, will attempt to retrieve a benign image file from an actor-controlled server. This provides a “sign of life” to threat actors and indicates that the targeted account is valid with the user being inclined to open emails that utilize social engineering content. TA416 has been using web bugs to target victims prior to delivering malicious URLs that have installed a variety of PlugX malware payloads. The operational tempo of these campaigns, specifically those against European governments, have increased sharply since Russian troops began amassing on the border of Ukraine.
The use of the web bug reconnaissance technique suggests TA416 is being more discerning about which targets the group chooses to deliver malware payloads. Historically, the group primarily delivered web bug URLs alongside malware URLs to confirm receipt. In 2022, the group started to first profile users and then deliver malware URLs. This may be an attempt by TA416 to avoid having their malicious tools discovered and publicly disclosed. By narrowing the lens of targeting from broad phishing campaigns to focus on targets that have proven to be active and willing to open emails, TA416 increases its chance of success when following up with malicious malware payloads.