Microsoft and Adobe Systems each issued security updates on Tuesday. Redmond released a single patch to plug a flaw that’s not terribly scary, unless you happen to be running Windows 2000. Adobe’s patch bundle, however, covers at least eight critical security flaws, including one that hackers have been exploiting in targeted attacks of late.
In a huge disclosure today, Google said a sophisticated and targeted cyber attack against its corporate infrastructure late last year was aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. As a result of the incident, the company says it will no longer censor search results on behalf of the Chinese government, and that it may in fact cease operations in the country altogether.
In a posting to its Official Google Blog, the company said that in mid-December a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” against its internal systems “resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” The search engine giant said that the attack also struck at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses, and that it is currently in the process of notifying those companies.
Google said it has evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
“Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves,” the company said. “We have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.”
As a result of the attacks, Google says it is no longer willing to continue censoring Google.cn search results. From the Google announcement:
“We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that ‘we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.’
A periodic pointer to some of the more interesting and newsworthy security news stories. In no particular order:
Proof-of-concept for Mac OS X systems Released
Possible Malicious Apps for Google’s Android Phone
Online Gaming Exec. Sentenced to 33 Months
‘Massive Cybercrime Conspiracy’
Read after the jump for summaries and links to more information.
January promises to be a busy month for Web server and database administrators alike: A security research firm in Russia says it plans to release information about a slew of previously undocumented vulnerabilities in several widely-used commercial software products.
When you write about complex subjects such as security for a mainstream publication like The Washington Post — as I did for so many years until very recently — you sort of have to assume that a non-trivial number of your readers don’t have the strongest grasp of technology and security issues. But I’m curious how krebsonsecurity.com readers would describe their level of comfort with computers and the steps it takes to remain safe online.
The FBI is investigating the theft of nearly a half million dollars from tiny Duanesburg Central School District in upstate New York, after cyber thieves tried to loot roughly $3.8 million from district online bank accounts last month.
On Friday, Dec. 18, thieves tried to electronically transfer $1.86 million from the district’s account at NBT Bank to an overseas account. The following Monday, the attackers attempted to move another $1.19 million to multiple overseas location. It wasn’t until the next day, when transfers totaling $758,758.70 were flagged by a bank representative as suspicious, that the two previous unauthorized transactions were discovered, school officials said.
As of today, Duanesburg and its bank have succeeded in recovering $2.55 million of the stolen funds, but the school district is still out $497,000.
In early 2008, while federal investigators were busy investigating disgraced financier Robert Allen Stanford for his part in an alleged $8 billion fraudulent investment scheme, Eastern European hackers were quietly hoovering up tens of thousands customer financial records from the Bank of Antigua, an institution formerly owned by the Stanford Group.
According to a fraud investigator with first-hand knowledge of the break-in, the hackers responsible infiltrated a component of the Stanford Group’s network by exploiting vulnerabilities in the company’s Web servers and databases. On the condition of anonymity, the investigator shared with this author files recovered from the breach, which were stored in plain text for at least several weeks on a Web site controlled by the attackers. This source said he forwarded the same information on to the FBI shortly after discovering it in early 2008.
Once inside of Stanford’s network, the unidentified hackers appear to have swiped the credentials from an internal network administrator, and soon had downloaded the user names and password hashes for more than 1,000 employees of Stanford Financial, Stanford Group, Stanford Trust, and Stanford International Bank Ltd.
Among the purloined files is a listing of what appear to be ownership and balance information for tens of thousands of customer accounts at Bank of Antigua. Each listing includes the account number, owner’s name, address, balance, and accrued interest.
Mr. Stanford is set to go on trial this month for allegations that he led a $8 billion fraud scheme. In addition, federal authorities reportedly have been investigating whether Stanford was involved in laundering drug money for Mexico’s notorious Gulf Cartel.
Adobe is planning to ship an update a week from today that fixes a critical vulnerability in its free and widely used PDF Reader program. Unfortunately, according to experts, criminal hackers are starting to step up attempts to exploit the flaw and install malicious software via poisoned PDFs.
In a year marked by record bank failures and Wall Street swindlers walking away with tens of billions of investor dollars, it’s perhaps not surprising that the activities of organized cyber gangs looting at least $100 million dollars from small to mid-sized businesses went largely unheralded.
The mainstream media could be forgiven for focusing on bigger fish. For one thing, this particular strain of fraud has many moving parts and is challenging to explain to broad audiences. Also, raising awareness about fraud is always tough because the issue almost invariably involves U.S. banks and federal law enforcement, two entities that by their very genetic makeup resist discussing anything that is not tightly scripted and on-message: The FBI is hyper-reluctant to discuss or even acknowledge ongoing investigations (particularly those in which the main actors are overseas), and the banks simply don’t want to spook customers in any way.
But law enforcement and the banking industry appear to have been at odds over how and how much to communicate with the public about the seriousness and impact of these crimes. The following anecdotes offer a peek into some of the struggles I experienced last year trying to extract useful and truthful information from both parties.
Friday, Aug. 21, 3:00 p.m. ET: I was wrapping up a story for The Washington Post about a confidential alert drafted by the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC), an industry group representing some of the nation’s largest banks. The document I’d gotten hold of seemed to validate the focus of my reporting for the previous 10 weeks: It said the FBI was tracking a major upswing in incidents involving organized computer thieves who were using malicious software to steal tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars from countless small- to mid-sized businesses throughout the United States.
I had finagled a draft version of the alert, and understood that the final version would be sent sometime later that day, although the distribution list was reportedly limited to a few hundred people — mostly law enforcement and bankers. Problem was, I couldn’t confirm whether the alert had in fact been sent as planned, or whether the final version was changed much from the version I’d obtained.
What’s more, after two days of waiting, I still had no meaningful response from the FBI to my query, which sought to verify the alert’s statement that the FBI believes organized cyber thieves involved in this type of crime were stealing at least a million dollars a week from victims, and that several new victim firms were coming forward each week.
My editor was restless: Without an answer to these questions, the story would hold until next week. The answers didn’t come, and the story held.
When I finally got confirmation the following Monday that the alert had gone out, I also learned that the final version had been significantly watered down. Gone were the monetary damage estimates, including this stark assessment: ‘Total economic impact of these activities, if they continue unabated, is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.’
Gone was any mention of specific countries to which the stolen tens of millions were flowing (Russia, Ukraine and Moldova). Removed was the part about the quasi-financial institutions responsible for the cross-border flow of stolen cash (Moneygram and Western Union).
Mind you, this was an alert that was not intended for public distribution, but merely to be sent to a small group of banks and law enforcement folks.