Until this week, no one has ever confirmed publicly what everyone has suspected all along: that China was behind the advanced attack against RSA's SecurID systems last year. That was the revelation by the head of the U.S. Cyber Command in a Congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Gen. Keith Alexander was asked by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee for examples he could provide publicly of cyberattacks by China against U.S. interests. Alexander, who is also the director of the National Security Agency, then named RSA as a victim of Chinese cyberespionage. In his prepared testimony earlier in the hearing, he had pointed to the March 2011 targeted attack against RSA (PDF) as an example of intellectual property theft at the hands of cyberattackers, but didn't elaborate on the origin of the attackers until pressed by committee chair Sen. Carl Levin.
RSA all along has been tight-lipped about who may have been behind the attack, noting that the attack had the earmarks of a nation-sponsored adversary.
So what does RSA say about Alexander's revelation? "Our position has always been that we aren't going to speculate on the attackers' identity. There are certain characteristics that are consistent with the notion of a state-sponsored actor," says Eddie Schwartz, CSO at RSA.
Schwartz went on to say: "The notion to keep in mind is that when a government official speaks out about something like a perpetrator of an attack, they are speaking from the position they have, whether it's intelligence or law enforcement, having access to enormous amounts of data -- a perspective that a private company usually doesn't have."
Schwartz says the investigation is still considered ongoing and "in the hands of law enforcement."
Although he wouldn't comment on whether law enforcement has kept RSA up-to-date on its findings in the investigation, he says they do keep in close touch with the authorities. "RSA maintains very close relationships with law enforcement ... certainly, with respect to ongoing investigations, we imagine maintaining close relationships," he says.
NSA's Alexander basically confirmed the worst-kept secret, that Chinese attackers were behind the RSA breach, where information on SecurID two-factor authentication products was stolen in an advanced persistent threat-style attack against the security vendor.
At least one security researchers later found clues that pointed to China as the possible culprit. Joe Stewart, director of malware research for Dell Secureworks, discovered a pattern of APT attackers using a tool called HTran, written 10 years ago by a Chinese hacker, to hide their whereabouts. Stewart located the actual C&C servers used by the attackers involved with the Shady RAT APT cyberespionage campaign -- which, according to McAfee, stole intellectual property from 70 government agencies, international companies, nonprofits, and others in 14 countries -- and narrowed down the main hubs in Beijing and Shanghai.
And two of the APT malware families Stewart studied were used in the RSA breach in March, he said.
Meanwhile, Alexander's comments were the first "official" ones uttered on China as the perpetrator; there has been plenty of speculation and assumption within the security community as such.
"The ability to do it against a company like RSA is such a high-order capability that, if they can do it against RSA, that makes other companies vulnerable," Alexander told Congress, according to a report in InformationWeek.
In his prepared testimony, Alexander mentioned the epidemic in cyberespionage and its fallout. "State-sponsored industrial espionage and theft of intellectual capital now occurs with stunning rapacity and brazenness, and some of that activity links back to foreign intelligence services," he said. "Companies and government agencies around the world are thus being looted of their intellectual property by national intelligence actors, and those victims understandably turn for help to their governments."
Michael Sutton, vice president of security research for Zscaler ThreatLabZ, says U.S. businesses should be on alert for these types of attacks. "The RSA attack has long been considered to be the work of Chinese attackers, but the statements made by General Alexander certainly leave little doubt as to the true origin of the attacks," Sutton said in a statement. "U.S.-based enterprises, especially those with valuable intellectual property related to information technology and national security, should assume that they are being actively targeted on a regular basis."
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio