New reports released this week on recent, high-profile data breaches make the compelling case that a simmering Cold War-style cyber arms race has emerged between the United States and China.
A study issued Thursday by McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that more than half of the 600 executives surveyed worldwide said they had been subject to “stealthy infiltration” by high-level adversaries, and that 59 percent believed representatives of foreign governments had been involved in the attacks.
A more granular analysis issued Thursday by Mandiant, an Alexandria, Va. based security firm, focuses on data breaches it has responded to involving the so-called “advanced persistent threat,” or those characterized by highly targeted attacks using custom-made malicious software in the hands of patient, well-funded assailants.
Mandiant notes that the scale, operation and logistics of conducting these attacks – against the government, commercial and private sectors – indicates that they’re state-sponsored.
The Chinese government may authorize this activity, but there’s no way to determine the extent of its involvement. Nonetheless, we’ve been able to correlate almost every APT intrusion we’ve investigated to current events within China. In all cases, information exfiltrated by each set of attackers correlates with a need for intelligence related to upcoming major U.S. / China mergers and acquisitions, corporate business negotiations, or defense industrial base acquisition opportunities [emphasis added].
The reports come just days after the Christian Science Monitor revealed that three Texas-based oil companies – Conoco, ExxonMobil and Marathon – were alerted by the FBI that their systems were penetrated back in 2008. The Monitor story said the attacks, thought to have originated in China, targeted “bid data” about oil reserves and potential drilling sites.
Here in the States, today is “National Data Privacy Day.” Declared as such on this day a year ago by the U.S. Congress, this unofficial holiday is meant to remind teens and young adults about the importance of protecting their personal information online, particularly in the context of social networking.
What’s that? You didn’t know about NDPD? Yeah, neither did I: A bloke I know from the U.K. clued me in over instant message with a link to this Wikipedia page. Oddly enough, his note interrupted my reading of a story about how at least 30 congressional Web sites were defaced in apparent response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. Social networking, indeed. [Update, 1:29 p.m. The AP is now reporting 49 House sites were hacked].
Incidentally, I got interested in the mass defacement story while searching for a distraction from going through all the mail on my desk. Among the bills and other notices we received recently was a notice from the National Archives and Records Administration. It seems someone had stolen or misplaced a hard drive from the Archives a while back that contained the Social Security information on my wife (the breach affected roughly 250,000 other people as well). Why did the NARA have my wife’s Social? She made the mistake of touring the White House during the Clinton administration.
I, for one, applaud Congress for its example in encouraging all of us to take a moment to reflect — at least once a year — on just how little privacy most of us have in today’s online world, and how little control most of us have over the security of personal information that countless organizations hold about us.
Little children are sometimes taught that — just as no two snowflakes are exactly alike – each of us is unique and special. There’s ample evidence to suggest this is also basically true for our online selves as well.
The graphic above is from a report out today by Team Cymru, a group that monitors studies online attacks and other badness in the underground economy. It suggests an increasing divergence in the way criminals are managing botnets, those large amalgamations of hacked PCs that are used for everything from snarfing up passwords to relaying spam and anonymizing traffic for the bad guys, to knocking the targeted host or Web site offline.
The bottom line in the graphic shows the prevalence of botnets that are managed using Internet relay chat (IRC) control channels (think really basic text-based instant message communications). The blue line trending upward depicts the number of Web-based botnets, those that the botmaster can control with point-and-click ease using a regular Web browser.
A machine equipment company in Texas is tussling with its bank after organized crooks swiped more than $800,000 in a 48-hour cyber heist late last year. While many companies similarly victimized over the past year have sued their banks for having inadequate security protection, this case is unusual because the bank is preemptively suing the victim.
Both the victim corporation – Plano based Hillary Machinery Inc. – and the bank, Lubbock based PlainsCapital, agree on this much: In early November, cyber thieves initiated a series of unauthorized wire transfers totaling $801,495 out of Hillary’s account, and PlainsCapital managed to retrieve roughly $600,000 of that money.
If you happen to stumble upon a Web site that freaks out your anti-virus program, chances are good that the page you’ve visited is part of a malicious or hacked site that has been outfitted with what’s known as an “exploit pack.” These are pre-packaged kits designed to probe the visitor’s browser for known security vulnerabilities, and then use the first one found as a vehicle to silently install malicious software.
Exploit packs have been around for years, and typically are sold on shadowy underground forums. A constant feature of exploit packs is a Web administration page (pictured above), which gives the attacker real-time statistics about victims, such as which browser exploits are working best, and which browsers and browser versions are most successfully attacked.
One of the most popular at the moment is a kit called “Eleonore,” and I’m writing about it here because it highlights the importance of remaining vigilant about patching. It’s also a reminder that sometimes the older exploits are more successful than the brand new variety that garner all of the headlines from the tech press.
The screen captures in this blog post were taken a few weeks ago from a working Eleonore installation (version 1.3.2) that was linked to several adult Web sites. As we can see from the first image, this pack tries to exploit several vulnerabilities in Adobe Reader, including one that Adobe just patched this month. The kit also attacks at least two Internet Explorer vulnerabilities, and a Java bug. In addition, the pack also attacks two rather old Firefox vulnerabilities (from 2005 and 2006). For a partial list of the exploits included in this pack, skip to the bottom of this post.
It’s important to keep in mind that some of these exploits are browser-agnostic: For example, with the PDF exploits, the vulnerability being exploited is the PDF Reader browser plug-in, not necessarily the browser itself. That probably explains the statistics in the images below, which shows a fairly high success rate against Opera, Safari, and Google Chrome users. In the screen shots below, the numbers beneath the “traffic” field indicate the number of visitors to the malicious site using that particular version of the browser, while the “loads” number corresponds to the number of visitors for that browser version that were found to be vulnerable to one or more of the vulnerabilities exploited by the Eleonore pack. The “percent” fields obviously indicate the percentage of visitors for each specific browser type that were successfully exploited (click for a larger version):
Last week, Adobe Systems Inc. shipped critical security updates for its PDF Reader software. Now comes an update that fixes at least two critical flaws in Adobe’s Shockwave Player, a commonly installed multimedia player.
Not sure whether you even have Shockwave Player on your system? You’re not alone. Because of a long history of rebranding between Macromedia and Adobe, the various naming conventions used for this software are extremely confusing. Here’s Adobe’s effort to draw clearer distinctions between the Flash and Shockwave multimedia players:
Jan. 7, 2010 was a typical sunny Thursday morning at the Delray Beach Public Library in coastal Florida, aside from one, ominous dark cloud on the horizon: It was the first time in as long as anyone could remember that the books simply weren’t checking out.
Sure, patrons were still able to borrow tomes in the usual way — by presenting their library cards. The trouble was, none of the staff could figure out how or why nearly $160,000 had disappeared from their bank ledgers virtually overnight. The money was sent in sub-$10,000 chunks to some 16 new employees that had been added to the usual outgoing direct deposit payroll.
One of those phantom employees was 19-year-old Brittany Carmine, 900 miles to the north in Richmond, Va. Carmine had just lost her job at a local marketing firm when she received a work-at-home job offer from a company calling itself the Prestige Group. She said after researching the company online, she decided it was legitimate, and filled out the paperwork to begin her employment. Just days later, she received a bank deposit of $9,649, with instructions to wire all but roughly $770 of that to individuals in Ukraine.
Ten to fifteen years ago, if you were going to be the target of state sponsored or corporate espionage, you yourself were going to be a government or a large corporation that had intellectual property or information that an adversary was going to have to invest a lot of time and effort to pry out of you. What we have seen over the last five to seven years is that the botnet has democratized that process, so that now an individual can commit his own intelligence reconnaissance and espionage, whether at arms length on behalf of a state, on his own, or whether he’s doing it for corporate espionage.
This is an excerpt from a column of mine that appeared today at CSOonline. Read the rest of it at this link here.
Microsoft has issued an emergency security update to plug a critical hole in its Internet Explorer Web browser. The IE bug is the same flaw that is being blamed in part for fueling a spate of recent break-ins at Fortune 100 companies, including Google and Adobe.
If you use Microsoft Windows, please take a moment now to update your computer. Updates are available for all supported versions of IE and Windows. The easiest way to install the patch is through Windows Update. Users who have Automatic Updates turned on may be prompted to download and apply this within the next 48 hours or so, but honestly this is the kind of bug you probably want to quash as soon as possible.
The reason is that this is a browse-to-a-hostile-site-and-quickly-have-a-bad-day kind of flaw. What’s more, Symantec is now reporting that it has discovered hundreds of malicious and/or hacked Web sites are now serving up code that exploits this flaw to download malicious software. While many of these sites are in China, that fact matters little because hackers can always stitch code into a hacked, legitimate site that quietly and invisibly pulls down exploits from other sites. Meanwhile, security firm Websense warns that the targeted e-mail attacks leveraging this flaw continue unabated.
When computer code that exploits this IE flaw was first posted online last week, Microsoft was quick to point out that it had only seen the code working reliably against IE6 users. However, researchers now claim that the exploit can also be made to work against IE7 and even IE8 — the latest version of IE that ships with Windows 7 systems.
The fixes included in this patch aren’t limited to the publicly disclosed flaw: Microsoft has addressed seven other vulnerabilities in this patch as well. More details about this specific update are available at this Microsoft Technet page.
Securing your computer isn’t just about making sure the doors and windows into your system are latched and patched: Sometimes, it makes more sense to simply brick up some of these entryways altogether — by getting rid of programs you no longer use.
There are several programs that I’ve mentioned recently and put in this category (Java, QuickTime, Adobe Reader). Allow me to add another program to this list: RealPlayer. If you have this program installed, ask yourself this question: When was the latest time you used it?