Attila Nemeth, 26, from Hungary, has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to hacking and extortion charges stemming from a bizarre case in which he placed backdoor malware on Marriott computers, exfiltrated sensitive documents, and then threatened Marriott with exposing the information if the company didn't offer him an IT position.
The case puts a whole new spin on the targeted attack; rather than trying to cash in on the intelligence or use it for competitive purposes, the perpetrator used it as leverage. Nemeth's methods were similar to those of advanced persistent threat (APT) attackers: He got a foot in the door of Marriott's computers by targeting some of its employees with spear-phishing emails. Marriott did not publicize details about what happened next, but one or more of the users appear to have fallen for the phony emails and either opened infected documents or a link that silently installed a backdoor on Marriott's systems.
"I also found it interesting that instead of using the data to embarrass or ruin Marriott, he used it to try and land a job. It is something I have not seen a lot of, personally. Even in cases where employees go bad, rarely does the attacker want to link his name with the attack, so they will deface, hack, release, and ruin, but try to hide their identity," says Chris Hadnagy, lead developer of Social-Engineer.Org and a professional Social Engineering Penetration Tester and trainer for Social-Engineer.Com. "This man obviously had different goals, and what he found he must have felt was devastating enough to warrant a well-paying job over the release of that intel."
It all started on Nov. 11, 2010, when Nemeth emailed Marriott's personnel group to tell them he had been able to get inside the hotel chain's computers for months and had stolen proprietary data. He warned that if Marriott did not give him a job maintaining the hotel chain's computers, he would reveal the information he had stolen. Two days later, he sent another email that included seven documents that were confirmed by Marriott to be documents from its servers containing financial information and other proprietary and confidential content.
Nemeth said in his message that he had sent an infected attachment via email to certain Marriott employees, which allowed him to plant backdoor malware on Marriott's systems. That gave him access to emails and other files at the company.
"Marriott is committed to protecting confidential and proprietary information. When we became aware of the intrusion by the now-convicted individual, we immediately alerted federal authorities and actively assisted and cooperated in their investigation and efforts to apprehend the suspect. We have no reason to believe that any guest information was compromised," a Marriott spokesperson said in a statement.
So on Nov. 18, 2010, Marriott began working with the U.S. Secret Service in a sting operation to catch Nemeth. Marriott set up the identity of a phony Marriott human resources employee that the Secret Service then used to communicate with the hacker. Nemeth fell for it: He telephoned and emailed the undercover agent, continuing his threats to release the private Marriott documents. Then he emailed the agent his passport and volunteered to meet in the U.S., which they did on Jan. 17, 2011.
Nemeth assumed he was meeting the Marriott "employee" for a job interview, where he admitted his alleged crimes of hacking and stealing Marriott files and threatening them with exposing the data if they didn't give him a job. Meanwhile, he also demonstrated how he got into the Marriott network and showed where he stored the data on a server back in Hungary.
"I think what Marriott did was genius, setting up a fake employee and using social engineering skills to get him to come for an 'interview' -- I would recommend any company taking a page from their playbook," Social-Engineer.Org's Hadnagy says. "Of course, if we see a rise of this, it will become harder to trick people, and then you run the risk of that data being released. Cautiously and calmly is the best approach."
Nemeth's overconfidence in his having the upper hand over Marriott backfired, and he was arrested. "Thinking that a company would actually trust him as an employee after he breached their network seems not well-thought-out," Hadnagy says. "What I would expect is that blackmail, ransom, and extortion would be more of the methods used by the bad guys that have actually damaging data. It is like holding up a bank to get them to give you a valid account, [which] seems pretty silly to me."
Even so, the Marriott hack is yet another example of how vulnerable enterprises are to social-engineering attacks. "This just proves the point that social engineering is a large threat to corporate America," Hadnagy says. "It is not something we can fix with some patches or compliance testing. We need more than that: education, consistent testing and training, and to create good policies are just a few of the things needed."
Marriott says the hack cost the company some $400,000 and $1 million in salaries, consulting fees, and other expenses.
"We are constantly evaluating and updating our security protocols and implementing enhanced protection measures related to the security of our intellectual property. We appreciate the dedication of the AUSA’s office, the Secret Service and other involved law enforcement personnel for their effective and successful pursuit of this investigation," the Marriott spokesman said in his statement.
Nemeth, meanwhile, faces up to 10 years in prison "for the transmission of the malicious code," and a maximum of five years in prison for attempted blackmail. His sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 3, 2012. Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.