Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Operation Shady RAT: The Biggest Hacking Attack Ever

Researchers from security software concern McAfee say they have discovered the biggest series of computer intrusions ever, covering some 72 organizations and governments around the world, including the U.S., Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Canada and India — some of them dating back as far as 2006. (See the map of targets, courtesy of McAfee, below.)

And these aren’t the kind of cyber attacks carried out by bumbling troublemakers like the LulzSec gang, which make headlines but really only cause a nuisance for companies like Sony. In these cases, networks were compromised by remote access tools — or RATs, as they’re known in the industry. These tools — and they are tools, because they have legitimate uses for system administrators — give someone the ability to access a computer from across the country or around the world. In this case, however, they were secretly placed on the target systems, hidden from the eyes of day-to-day users and administrators, and were used to rifle through confidential files for useful information. It’s not for nothing that McAfee is calling this Operation Shady RAT.

McAfee says the attacker was a “state actor,” though it declined to name it. I’ll give you three guesses who the leading candidate is, though you’ll probably need only one: China.

Dmitri Alperovitch, McAfee’s Vice President, Threat Research, makes a statement in his blog entry on the discovery that should give everyone minding a corporate or government network pause: “I am convinced that every company in every conceivable industry with significant size and valuable intellectual property and trade secrets has been compromised (or will be shortly), with the great majority of the victims rarely discovering the intrusion or its impact.” He further divides the worldwide corporate landscape into two camps: Those who have been compromised and know it, and those who simply don’t know it yet.

This has been a particularly nasty year on the cyber security front. (I hate to say it, but I told you so.) Prior to this, the big attack whose full impact has not yet been fully sized up was the one against the RSA SecureID system, which uses popular keychain devices that create a constantly changing series of numbers that in turn create a second password for access to system resources. They’re widely used in government and military circles and among defense contractors. Google has been a regular target in recent years.

The RSA attack and Operation Shady RAT are examples, Alperovitch says, of an “Advanced Persistent Threat.” The phrase has come to be a buzzword that, loosely translated into English, means the worst kind of cyber attack you can imagine. Unlike the denial-of-service attacks and network intrusions carried out by LulzSec and its ilk, which require only minimal skill and marginal understanding of how networks and servers work, an APT is carried out by someone of very high skill who picks his targets carefully and sneaks inside them in a way that is difficult to detect, which allows access to the target system on an ongoing basis that may persist for years.

How did these attacks happen? Its very simple: Someone at the target organization received an email that looked legitimate, but which contained an attachment that wasn’t. This is called “spear phishing,” and it has become the weapon of choice for sophisticated cyber attackers. The attachments are not what they appear to be — Word documents or spreadsheets or other routine things — and contain programs that piggyback on the targeted user’s level of access to the network. These programs then download malware which gives the attackers further access. This all happens in an automated way, but soon after, live attackers log in to the system to dig through what they can find, copy what they can, and make a getaway — though they often leave the doors unlocked so they can come back for repeat visits.

Alperovitch notes — correctly, to my mind — that the phrase has been picked up and overused by the marketing departments of numerous security companies. His larger point is that too often those attacked in this way refuse to come forward and disclose what they’ve learned, thereby allowing the danger to continue for everyone else.

Alperovitch says that the data taken in Operation Shady RAT adds up to several petabytes worth of information. It’s not clear how it has been used. But, as he says, “If even a fraction of it is used to build better competing products or beat a competitor at a key negotiation (due to having stolen the other team’s playbook), the loss represents a massive economic threat not just to individual companies and industries but to entire countries that face the prospect of decreased economic growth.” It’s also bad for a target’s national security, because defense contractors dealing in sensitive military matters are often the targets. The best thing that can happen is that victims start talking about their attacks and sharing information with each other so that everyone can be ready for the next one, which is surely coming.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald