One of the UK’s most secretive security organisations is hunting down a gang of high tech criminals in the Far East that has been attacking the computer systems of Government departments and multi-national companies to steal secrets.
The gang, which many experts say is either being headed up by a computer master criminal or a spy chief, has been responsible for well over a 1,000 computer break-in attempts over the last few months and has so far attacked 50 countries across the globe.
The National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre, which is partially staffed with officers from the British intelligence agency MI5, has broken ranks to warn that the highly sophisticated high-tech gang has been trying to place bugging programs inside sensitive computer systems in a bid to steal Government and business secrets .
“To have achieved what this gang are doing then it either has to be state-sponsored or at the highest level or organised crime,” said Dr Andrew Blyth, head of Glamorgan University’s Computer Forensics Department, who has worked with the UK’s law enforcement agencies to develop technology to combat high-tech crime.
According to Blyth, rumours of the attacks have been circulating for a number of months now and within the last month CESG, a part of GCHQ, provided information on how to counter the attacks at a special briefing in London.
Blyth is not alone, other computer security experts are warning that the attacks demonstrate a high level of expertise and claim that this is being coupled with the use of a technique known as social engineering to obtain email addresses and names of targets and that it points to a large group of hackers who are capable of co-operating and keeping quiet.
“This is not the pattern of behaviour that we have been used to in the past from hackers,” said a former intelligence official.
“Nor does it appear to have the incentives that organised crime is after in terms of a fast financial return.”
However, according to high level sources involved in tracking the gang down it is one of a number of organised groups around the world that are involved in a high tech crime wave.
“We have seen three attacks a day from this group in the last week and there are a lot of other groups out there too. You could say that the iceberg is now in view.”
“This is organised crime who is doing this. It is not people who are breaking the lawby hacking these are people who steal information, use extortion and are not above threatening to break people’s legs.
“We know of people who are in fear of their lives following phone conversations with some of these people.”
Ironically, the group’s success has been built not just on the use of homework but by the use of computer viruses that have broadcast the internal lists of names, positions and phone and email addresses back to the hackers.
“This is not as targeted as is being suggested, they are attacking systems that they have already randomly obtained data on. If you like, you could say that these companies have already been attacked and that this is the second round.”
The information from the source backs up statements from NISCC that the gang can turn each attack around within 2 hours.
The group work by identifying particular individuals in a company or organisation, obtaining their email addresses and then sending them an email designed to appeal to their interests.
The email contains a computer program known as a Trojan that is opened when the person clicks on it and is installed on their computer without their knowing it.
This program then sends out information from the machine.
The gang then work by either blackmailing the company and threatening to send the information to a competitor unless they are paid, or by threatening the particular employee who loaded the Trojan with being in league with them.
“You must not think that these are normal Trojan programs,” said Paul Woods a computer security expert for MessageLabs, a company specialising in monitoring internet traffic.
“They change the program for every message so that it is not picked up by the anti-virus and spyware filters. They also change them so that they can suck information from particular programs that are used in a specific industry.
“That means that if they have bugged a design program, for example, that the computer can send off details of whatever is designed on it to the gang.”
According to MessageLabs, which started to intercept the attacks when they first appeared, the emails all display the work of what looks like one gang using similar techniques and tell tale signs.
“They are different every time and must take around 1-2 days to put together.
“They are very well crafted, often look as though they come from a news organisation and all of the sources indicate that they are coming from the same place in Asia,” said Alex Shipp, a senior virus analyst with MessageLabs
NISCC said that the attacks on 300 organisations have been going on for a number of months now but inquiries have discovered that they have been going on for well over a year and started in March 2004 and have been running at between 10 and 20 a week since then.
“They appear to be returning to attack the same companies but they don’t use the same email address twice, the level of homework is impressive,” said a source.
The NISCC protects vital infrastructure including Government departments and companies working in communications, energy, finance, health and transport.
According to sources attacks have been made on particular sectors such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals and human rights organizations.
Peter Tippett, the chief Technology Officer of CyberTrust, a company that provides intelligence on cyber crime said it would be a mistake to view the attacks as an isolated incident.
“I think you will find that this is one group that is getting identified a little more than the others at the moment,” said Tippett.
A Home Office spokesman said that NISCC was now working with organizations in the Far East and is close to turning off the computers where the attacks are coming from.
“One of the reasons that we have put out this warning is because we are trying to find out what the scale of the attack whether it has just been on the critical national infrastructure that the NISCC protects,” said the spokesman.