The FortiGate Breach: A Cyber Espionage Saga


In a sophisticated cyber espionage operation that reads like a plot from a high-stakes thriller, Chinese state-backed hackers targeted the Dutch military’s computer network through a critical vulnerability in Fortinet FortiGate devices. This incident, which unfolded in 2023, highlights the ever-present dangers lurking within the digital shadows, waiting for the opportune moment to strike at the heart of national security and intelligence.

The Intrusion and Exploitation

The attackers leveraged a known critical security flaw in FortiOS SSL-VPN, identified as CVE-2022-42475, which allowed unauthenticated attackers to execute arbitrary code via specially crafted requests. The exploitation of this vulnerability facilitated the deployment of a stealthy and persistent backdoor, dubbed COATHANGER, from an actor-controlled server. COATHANGER’s design ensured it remained hidden by hooking system calls that could reveal its presence, surviving reboots and firmware upgrades, a testament to the sophistication of the malware and the intent of its operators (

This breach affected a self-contained system used for unclassified research and development (R&D) within the Dutch armed forces, involving less than 50 users. Despite its isolation, the incident has cast a spotlight on the relentless pursuit of cyber espionage by state-sponsored actors and the continuous need for robust cybersecurity measures (

The Response and Implications

In response to these kinds of threats, Fortinet has been proactive in releasing security updates for FortiOS and FortiProxy software, addressing vulnerabilities that could potentially allow cyber threat actors to take control of affected systems ( However, the incident underscores a broader concern about the persistent threat posed by state-sponsored cyber espionage campaigns. It marks the first time the Netherlands has publicly attributed such a campaign to China, a move that signifies the growing tensions and the necessity for transparency and resilience against cyber threats (

The discovery of COATHANGER within the Dutch military network has not only shed light on the technical prowess of Chinese cyber espionage efforts but also on the strategic importance of cybersecurity vigilance. With over 330,000 FortiGate firewalls reported as still unpatched against another critical vulnerability, CVE-2023-27997, the incident serves as a critical reminder of the importance of timely updates and the relentless vigilance required to protect digital infrastructures (

A Call to Action

The Dutch Ministry of Defense’s decision to make this espionage activity public aims to bolster international resilience against such cyber threats. By sharing information on the incident and the characteristics of the malware, the Dutch agencies hope to enable other FortiGate system users to determine their vulnerability to similar attacks and take defensive measures (

This breach is a stark reminder of the ongoing cyber warfare that silently rages on, often unseen but with potentially significant implications for national security and international relations. It highlights the critical need for continued investment in cybersecurity defenses, international cooperation, and the sharing of threat intelligence to combat the sophisticated tactics employed by state-sponsored actors.

In the digital age, where the boundaries of espionage extend far beyond physical borders, the FortiGate breach serves as a cautionary tale. It underscores the importance of vigilance, preparedness, and the unending battle between cyber defenders and the shadowy networks of state-sponsored hackers aiming to infiltrate and exploit the digital fortresses of nations.

In the digital age, where the boundaries of espionage extend far beyond physical borders, the FortiGate breach serves as a cautionary tale.

TeckPath News

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