Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

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.

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.

 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 8/10/2020
Pen Testers Who Got Arrested Doing Their Jobs Tell All
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  8/5/2020
Researcher Finds New Office Macro Attacks for MacOS
Curtis Franklin Jr., Senior Editor at Dark Reading,  8/7/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal, a Dark Reading Perspective
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
The Changing Face of Threat Intelligence
The Changing Face of Threat Intelligence
This special report takes a look at how enterprises are using threat intelligence, as well as emerging best practices for integrating threat intel into security operations and incident response. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-17476
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-10
Mibew Messenger before 3.2.7 allows XSS via a crafted user name.
CVE-2020-9525
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-10
CS2 Network P2P through 3.x, as used in millions of Internet of Things devices, suffers from an authentication flaw that allows remote attackers to perform a man-in-the-middle attack, as demonstrated by eavesdropping on user video/audio streams, capturing credentials, and compromising devices.
CVE-2020-9526
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-10
CS2 Network P2P through 3.x, as used in millions of Internet of Things devices, suffers from an information exposure flaw that exposes user session data to supernodes in the network, as demonstrated by passively eavesdropping on user video/audio streams, capturing credentials, and compromising devic...
CVE-2020-9527
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-10
Firmware developed by Shenzhen Hichip Vision Technology (V6 through V20, after 2018-08-09 through 2020), as used by many different vendors in millions of Internet of Things devices, suffers from buffer overflow vulnerability that allows unauthenticated remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via ...
CVE-2020-9528
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-10
Firmware developed by Shenzhen Hichip Vision Technology (V6 through V20), as used by many different vendors in millions of Internet of Things devices, suffers from cryptographic issues that allow remote attackers to access user session data, as demonstrated by eavesdropping on user video/audio strea...