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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Targeted Attack Infiltrates At Least 20 Companies

Attackers conducted a sustained espionage campaign against a score of private- and public-sector targets with links to policies of interest to China

Beginning in mid-2011, a widespread series of cyberattacks targeted more than a score of private firms, think tanks, and government organizations with links to policies of interest to China.

While attributing attacks to a specific actor is difficult, the attackers used a common command-and-control server to manage the exploitation and control of computers within each victim's network. In its research into the attacks -- dubbed Project Enlightenment -- security intelligence firm Cyber Squared managed to infiltrate the attackers' communications channel and gather information on the attacks, says the firm's CEO Adam Vincent.

"We were able to monitor the threat as they interacted with the victims, specifically tested their exploits, ran their exploits, potentially found their exploits were not executing, and then ran new exploits," Vincent says. "At that point, they sat back and managed the victim over time."

The targets of the attacks were diverse: A mining corporation with interests in the automotive industry. Canadian judicial offices handling the extradition of a Chinese national. A major law firm with clients all over the globe. And an international maritime group with connections to the United Nations.

While at first blush the victims appeared to have little in common, each had some link to Chinese strategic interests, Vincent says.

"A lot of work isn't on the technical side -- it was actually figuring out why: Why was a company attacked on this day," Vincent says. "We had to analyze dozens of victims in order to be able to say that this was for a certain strategic purpose."

The news of the attacks came the same week that the United States' Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) issued an alert about a sustained campaign of phishing attempts aimed at infiltrating the natural gas pipeline sector. The attacks, which started in December, appeared to have breached several utilities; alerts issued to the natural gas sector requested that companies allow the attacks to continue, apparently to aid U.S. intelligence gathering, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor.

Such attacks appear to becoming more numerous and tenacious, says Tom Patterson, lead partner for security company CSC's consulting group.

"The attackers are looking at specifically seeing which employees at which companies are good targets for an attack," he says. "That's what our clients are seeing right now."

[Researchers revealed details of a new advanced persistent threat attack that uses a combination of methods in an effort to steal sensitive operations, exploration, and financial data from petroleum and energy companies. See 'Night Dragon' Attacks Threaten Major Energy Firms.] 

The attack discovered by Cyber Squared began in early- to mid-2011, but was not discovered until a September phishing attack targeted a policy organization that had a central role in the Taiwanese Airpower Modernization Act (TAMA). The phishing attack failed to succeed, but the organization asked Cyber Squared to investigate, says Vincent, who refrained from giving specific details of the victims of the attacks.

The TAMA organization foiled that specific attack, but a persistent adversary will mostly like get into a company's network, Vincent says.

"Anyone that a sophisticated adversary targets, the adversary knows what they have and knows they can go one step above that organization's defenses to gain a foothold," he says.

Companies in specific industries should band together and share information on attacks that target their industries, says CSC's Patterson. In addition, threat intelligence can help companies determine where they should focus their defensive efforts.

While users can help companies stave off attackers, targeted firms should not rely on their users making the right choice, says Anup Ghosh, founder and CEO of endpoint security firm Invincea.

"Many companies think, 'If I could only get my users to be smarter, then I wouldn't have this problem," he says. "But instead of blaming the users, we need to try a different tactic -- training and awareness are not going to get us there."

Of course, companies have to care about security enough to put up a good defense. In the case of Project Enlightenment, not a single victim responded to Cyber Squared's warning about their breaches. Some may have shut down the attackers based on information provided by the firm, but others continue to be compromised, Vincent says.

"They are still operating many of their espionage campaigns," he says.

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