In recent years, data breaches involving theft of financial and personal information have outnumbered cyber incidents involving theft of intellectual property and trade secrets.
But news this week of a massive data theft at German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp AG and of similar thefts at multiple major US law firms show that cyber espionage poses as critical a threat to organizations as ever.
ThyssenKrupp, best known as one of the largest steelmakers in the world, Thursday said unknown intruders apparently from southeast Asia had broken into some of its systems and stolen intellectual property belonging to some of its businesses.
In a statement, the $14 billion conglomerate identified the impacted areas as its Industrial Solutions group and Steel Europe AG.
ThyssenKrupp’s industrial solutions group employs some 19,000 people worldwide and helps build industrial plants for companies in varied industries such as chemical, oil, and mining. The 27,000-employee Steel Europe group, meanwhile, is one of the world’s leading suppliers of flat steel and accounted for some $8 billion of ThyssenKrupp’s overall revenues last year.
In the statement, ThyssenKrupp said "fragments of data," including certain project data from one of its engineering companies, had been stolen from both of the impacted businesses. But the exact nature of the data that was stolen or the extent of the theft remains unclear, it added.
Investigations show that none of ThyssenKrupp’s other operations—especially critical ones such as its ship- and submarine-building Marine Systems group and production systems handling power plants and blast furnaces—were impacted.
ThyssenKrupp’s computer emergency response team and CIOs from all business groups have been involved in the response. All affected systems have been repaired and the company has implemented around the clock monitoring of its networks for new attacks, the company said.
The data theft, especially from ThyssenKrupp’s steel business, has sparked some speculation on the threat actors behind it and their likely motives.
Robert Lee, CEO of industrial control system (ICS) security vendor Dragos Inc., via a series of Twitter posts today said the theft suggests the involvement of a large group with a full-time focus and direct industry connections. "Steel production has more trade secrets than folks realize and is very competitive," Lee tweeted. "Germany is known for having some of worlds best steel."
Andrea Carcano, founder of Nozomi Networks a company that specializes in ICS security, speculated that the threat actors might have had a multi-step attack in mind. The goal might have been to steal IP such as design and production information, and then to use it to plan a more devastating attack in future.
The ThyssenKrupp incident is the second time in recent years that a German steel manufacturer has been the victim of a cyberattack, Carcano said. In December 2014, unknown attackers disrupted operations at another German steel maker by breaking into the control systems of the mill’s blast furnace and triggering a massive fire.
It is also possible that the ThyssenKrupp attackers stole the data to improve their own business capabilities in order to better compete, or to get a look at ThyssenKrupp's plans, Carcano told Dark Reading.
The attacks also suggest the threat actors are sophisticated, he says. "This wasn’t Shamoon 2, which could have been achieved by people with low technology skills, and which occurred quickly. This attack took skill, organization and planning and it occurred over time."
Meanwhile, Fortune this week said that documents in its possession show that attackers with connections to the Chinese government were responsible for a series of data thefts from senior partners working at multiple major law firms last year.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the thefts in March, had identified the victims as law firms working for major US corporations. The paper had speculated that the thefts were carried out to facilitate massive insider trading.
In its report this week, Fortune said the data it has reviewed reliably shows Chinese government involvement in the data thefts.