Tag Archives: cyberespionage

The Right Way to Steal

USS Badger Launching Harpoon missile

Chinese government hackers have compromised the computers of a Navy contractor, stealing massive amounts of highly sensitive data related to undersea warfare — including secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines by 2020, according to American officials.   The breaches occurred in January and February  2018, the officials said… The hackers targeted a contractor who works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, a military organization headquartered in Newport, R.I., that conducts research and development for submarines and underwater weaponry.

Taken were 614 gigabytes of material relating to a closely held project known as Sea Dragon, as well as signals and sensor data, submarine radio room information relating to cryptographic systems, and the Navy submarine development unit’s electronic warfare library…This fact raises concerns about the Navy’s ability to oversee contractors tasked with developing ­cutting-edge weapons.

For years, Chinese government hackers have siphoned information on the U.S. military, underscoring the challenge the Pentagon faces in safeguarding details of its technological advances. Over the years, the Chinese have snatched designs for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the advanced Patriot PAC-3 missile system; the Army system for shooting down ballistic missiles known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense; and the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, a small surface vessel designed for near-shore operations, according to previous reports prepared for the Pentagon.  In some cases, suspected Chinese breaches appear to have resulted in copycat technologies…

Investigators say the hack was carried out by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, a civilian spy agency responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence and domestic political security. The hackers operated out of an MSS division in the province of Guangdong, which houses a major foreign hacking department….

In September 2015, in a bid to avert economic sanctions, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to President Barack Obama that China would refrain from conducting commercial cyberespionage against the United States. …Both China and the United States consider spying on military technology to fall outside the pact.

Excerpts from Ellen Nakashima and Paul Sonne, China hacked a Navy contractor and secured a trove of highly sensitive data on submarine warfare, Washington Post, June 8, 2018

Cyber Crime and the Brain Drain

Trojan-Horse-Virus

Cyber attacks and cyber espionage are on the rise in Latin America, and the source of much of it is Brazilian hackers and Peruvian recent university graduates linking up with Russian-speaking experts, according to internet security analysts.  The region has seen a massive rise in ‘trojans’ – disguised malicious software – especially in the financial sector, and other online threats, said Dmitry Bestuzhev, Latin American head of research for security firm Kaspersky Lab.  The main producers of the malware are Brazil and Peru, he said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday following a regional cyber crime conference.

“Criminals from those two countries produce the majority of malicious code and attack not only their countries but also neighboring ones,” he said, adding that their attacks spread as far as Spain and Portugal. In the last couple of years there has been a rise in Latin American hackers linking up with more experienced criminals in Russia and Eastern Europe, he said, as a kind of shadowy brain drain takes place across the Atlantic.  A significant number of Peruvian students, in particular, attended university in Russia and returned home knowing how to operate malware as well as communicate in Russian.

“They return and often they are demotivated, they have studied six or eight years, and when they return to their country the work offered is low profile and mediocre paid,” said Bestuzhev.  With Peruvian laws also inadequate to deal with the threat, that was encouraging the formation of a hacker hub in the Andean country, he said.  In return, Russian criminals are increasingly using Latin American networks to ‘test’ new malware before unleashing it elsewhere, he added.

Excerpts  ROSALBA O’BRIENLatam cyber attacks rise as Peru, Brazil hackers link up with Russians, Reuters, Aug. 28, 2015

Cyberwarriors: US and China

cyberhacking

On May 19th, 2014 the Justice Department unveiled 31 charges against five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving breaking six laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots of the men beneath the legend “wanted by the FBI”. They may never be punished, but that is not the point. Google any of their names and the mugshots now appear, the online equivalent of a perp walk.

That China’s government spies on the commercial activities of companies in America is not news in itself. Last year Mandiant, a cyber-security firm based in Virginia, released a report that identified Unit 61398 of the PLA as the source of cyber-attacks against 140 companies since 2006. But the indictment does reveal more details about what sorts of things the Chinese cybersnoops have been snaffling.

Hackers stole designs for pipes from Westinghouse, an American firm, when it was building four nuclear power stations in China, and also took e-mails from executives who were negotiating with a state-owned company. They took financial information from SolarWorld, a maker of solar panels; gained access to computers owned by US Steel while it was in a trade dispute with a state-owned company; and took files from Alcoa, an aluminium producer, while it was in a joint venture with another Chinese government-backed firm. ATI, another metal firm, and the United Steelworkers union were hacked, too.

American firms that do business in China have long lobbied behind closed doors for Uncle Sam to do something about Chinese hackers. America’s government has hitherto followed a similar logic, pressing China in private. The decision to make a fuss reflects the failure of that approach. When the existence of Unit 61398 became public its troops paused for a while, then continued as before.

Confronting the PLA’s hackers comes at a cost. China has pulled out of a bilateral working group on cyber-security in response to the indictments. Global Times, a Chinese English-language daily, denounced America as: “a mincing rascal”. But doing nothing has a cost, too. Companies like Westinghouse and US Steel have a hard enough time competing with Chinese firms, without having their business plans and designs pinched by thieves in uniform. Nor is the spying limited to manufacturers: tech companies have been targeted by the same group…

Second, America’s spying on Huawei, a Chinese maker of telecoms and networking equipment, makes China’s government doubt that America follows its own rules.

Chinese spying: Cybersnoops and mincing rascals,  Economist, May 24, at 28

Automated Cyber-Security Systems: DARPA

data

From the DARPA website:

DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge takes aim at an increasingly serious problem: the inadequacy of current network security systems, which require expert programmers to identify and repair system weaknesses—typically after attackers have taken advantage of those weaknesses to steal data or disrupt processes. Such disruptions pose greater risks than ever as more and more devices, including vehicles and homes, get networked in what has become known as “the Internet of things.

“Today’s security methods involve experts working with computerized systems to identify attacks, craft corrective patches and signatures and distribute those correctives to users everywhere—a process that can take months from the time an attack is first launched,” said Mike Walker, DARPA program manager. “The only effective approach to defending against today’s ever-increasing volume and diversity of attacks is to shift to fully automated systems capable of discovering and neutralizing attacks instantly.”

To help accelerate this transition, DARPA launched the Cyber Grand Challenge, the first computer security tournament designed to test the wits of machines, not experts. The Challenge plans to follow a “capture the flag” competition format that experts have used for more than 20 years to test their cyber defense skills. That approach requires that competitors reverse engineer software created by challenge organizers and locate and heal its hidden weaknesses in a live network competition. The longest-running annual capture-the-flag challenge for experts is held at an annual conference known as DEF CON, and under the terms of a new agreement the Cyber Grand Challenge final competition is scheduled to co-locate with the DEF CON Conference in Las Vegas in 2016…

At the event, computers that have made it through a series of qualifying events over the next two years would compete head-to-head in a final tournament. Custom data visualization technology is under development to make it easy for spectators—both a live audience at the conference and anyone watching the event’s video stream worldwide—to follow the action.   Details about the Cyber Grand Challenge and some of the other registered teams can be found at www.cybergrandchallenge.com.

Man-in-the Middle Attack: UK against Belgium

man-in-the-middle attack

According to Spiegel, documents from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service was behind a cyber attack against Belgacom, a partly state-owned Belgian telecoms company. A “top secret” Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) presentation seen by SPIEGEL indicate that the goal of project, conducted under the codename “Operation Socialist,” was “to enable better exploitation of Belgacom” and to improve understanding of the provider’s infrastructure.

The presentation is undated, but another document indicates that access has been possible since 2010. The document shows that the Belgacom subsidiary Bics, a joint venture between Swisscom and South Africa’s MTN, was on the radar of the British spies.  Belgacom, whose major customers include institutions like the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, ordered an internal investigation following the recent revelations about spying by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) and determined it had been the subject of an attack. The company then referred the incident to Belgian prosecutors. Last week, Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo spoke of a “violation of the public firm’s integrity.”

When news first emerged of the cyber attack, suspicions in Belgium were initially directed at the NSA. But the presentation suggests that it was Belgium’s own European Union partner Britain that is behind “Operation Socialist,” even though the presentation indicates that the British used spying technology for the operation that the NSA had developed.  According to the slides in the GCHQ presentation, the attack was directed at several Belgacom employees and involved the planting of a highly developed attack technology referred to as a “Quantum Insert” (“QI”). It appears to be a method with which the person being targeted, without their knowledge, is redirected to websites that then plant malware on their computers that can then manipulate them. Some of the employees whose computers were infiltrated had “good access” to important parts of Belgacom’s infrastructure, and this seemed to please the British spies, according to the slides.

The documents also suggest that GCHQ continued to probe the areas of infrastructure to which the targeted employees had access. The undated presentation states that they were on the verge of accessing the Belgians’ central roaming router. The router is used to process international traffic. According to the presentation, the British wanted to use this access for complex attacks (“Man in the Middle” attacks)* on smartphone users. The head of GCHQ’s Network Analysis Centre (NAC) described Operation Socialist in the presentation as a “success.”

From Wikipedia: The man-in-the-middle attack (often abbreviated MITM, MitM, MIM, MiM, MITMA) in cryptography and computer security is a form of active eavesdropping in which the attacker makes independent connections with the victims and relays messages between them, making them believe that they are talking directly to each other over a private connection, when in fact the entire conversation is controlled by the attacker

Belgacom Attack: Britain’s GCHQ Hacked Belgian Telecoms Firm, Der Spiegel, Sept. 20, 2013

Cyberespionage in South Korea 2009-2013

The massive cyber attacks on South Korean banks and broadcasters earlier this year were part of a broad campaign of cyber espionage which dates back at least to 2009, a US security firm has concluded. The study by the firm McAfee  (Dissecting Operation Troy: Cyberespionage in South Korea) stopped short of blaming specific entities for the March 20 onslaught but said it found a pattern of sophisticated attacks, including efforts to wipe away traces that could lead to detection.  “The level of sophistication would indicate it is above and beyond your average individual or run-of-the mill hacktivism group,” said James Walter, a McAfee researcher and co-author of the study.

An official South Korean investigation in April determined North Korea’s military intelligence agency was responsible for the attacks which shut down the networks of TV broadcasters KBS, MBC and YTN, halted financial services and crippled operations at three banks….

But McAfee said the attacks represented only a small portion of the cyber campaign being carried out since 2009.  “One of the primary activities going on here is theft of intellectual property, data exfiltration, essentially stealing of secrets,” Walter said.  The report said the attacks, known first as Dark Seoul and now as Operation Troy were “more than cybervandalism… South Korean targets were actually the conclusion of a covert espionage campaign.”  McAfee concluded that two groups claiming responsibility for the attack were not credible.  “The clues left behind confirm that the two groups claiming responsibility were a fabrication to throw investigators off the trail and to mask the true source,” the report said.

Walter said that it is possible that with the campaign nearing detection, the hackers launched these attacks to distract the public and then sought to blame them on little-known entities, the NewRomanic Cyber Army Team, and the Whois Hacking Team.  He added that up to now, the cyber espionage effort “has been very successful in being under the radar” and that “what we see now was a more visible activity that is coupled with a distraction campaign.”

McAfee concluded that the remote-access Trojan was compiled January 26, and a component to wipe the records of numerous systems was compiled January 31.”The attackers who conducted the operation remained hidden for a number of years prior to the March 20 incident by using a variety of custom tools,” the report said.  “Our investigation into Dark Seoul has found a long-term domestic spying operation underway since at least 2009… We call this Operation Troy, based on the frequent use of the word ‘Troy’ in the compile path strings in the malware.”  McAfee carried out the study as part of its research into cybersecurity issues, Walter said.

The attack came days after North Korea had accused South Korea and the United States of being behind a “persistent and intensive” hacking assault that temporarily took a number of its official websites offline.  It also coincided with heightened military tensions on the Korean peninsula, following Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February.

South Korean cyber attacks tip of the iceberg: McAfee, Associated Press, Agence France Press, July 10, 2013