A recently disclosed cyberattack at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has become another example of the growing trend by attackers to exfiltrate sensitive data by targeting specific individuals within organizations.
Earlier this month, UVA officials disclosed that federal authorities had informed the university of a potential intrusion into its networks originating from China. The university confirmed the breach June 21 but did not immediately disclose the incident until last week while it worked to remediate the issue.
Security firm Mandiant, which was hired to investigate the intrusion, has confirmed that the attack appears to have been targeted at two specific employees whose work has a connection to China, university spokesman Anthony de Bruyn told Dark Reading today. According to Mandiant, there is evidence that the attackers accessed the email accounts of the two individuals, de Bruyn says.
He did not disclose what information the attackers may have been able to access from the email accounts or what specifically the two employees were working on pertaining to China.
There is no evidence that the attackers managed to access any university research information, he says. Similarly, no personally identifiable information such as Social Security numbers, personal health information or bank account information appears to have been compromised.
Like many other organizations, UVA did not immediately disclose the breach after being informed about it by federal law enforcement. Instead, the university’s IT organization worked quietly with Mandiant to identify and shut down the threat.
“In order to best protect against future attacks and in keeping with cybersecurity best practices, we notified the community as soon as we were confident that notification would not jeopardize our efforts to secure system,” de Bruyn says. “It was important that the hackers remain unaware of our action to investigate this event and protect against it. If the University had not taken this course of action, the situation could have worsened.”
The intrusion is another example of attackers choosing to target specific individuals to get access to key enterprise data. Other recent examples include advanced persistent threat attacks such as DarkHotel targeting traveling executives and a 2013 cyber espionage campaign against Norwegian telecom firm Telenor.
In UVA’s case, it is not clear what the China-based threat actors were after specifically. But it is possible the attack was motivated by UVA’s links to numerous private and government research organizations via its UVA Research Park, a 562-acre facility that is home to numerous laboratory, medical, pharmaceutical, retail, defense, and intelligence-affiliated organizations.
A report in the Daily Beast Friday postulated that the attack might have something to do with the university’s links to several US defense and intelligence organizations. The report quoted a bulletin issued by the US Department of Defense in July, weeks after the UVA breach, about foreign threat actors targeting academic institutions and government contractors.
The Daily Beast quoted the bulletin as warning government contractors and other organizations of an APT actor penetrating several US organizations and stealing data, credentials and other data.
“These attacks emphasize the need to extend better protection to all employees,” says Richard Stiennon, principal analyst at IT-Harvest and author of “There Will Be Cyberwar.” “Most organizations already have separate protection profiles for senior executives,” to mitigate the threat, he says.