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Last year, the UK’s Houses of Parliament nearly fell victim to a sophisticated hacking fraud. Experts are convinced that such attacks have the support of Chinese authorities
The hi-tech industrial espionage involved a series of innocuous-looking emails targeted at secretaries, researchers, parliamentary staff and even MPs themselves. Each one was specifically tailored to the individual who would receive it.
Once opened, these emails tried to download sophisticated spyware that hunts through the recipient’s computer and network for potentially valuable documents, which would be automatically sent back to the hackers without the user’s knowledge.
Fortunately, the attack, which took place earlier in 2005, was thwarted by parliament’s sophisticated internet security system; no sensitive data is thought to have been lost.
Instead, the Commons’ IT security staff immediately alerted the UK’s National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre (NISCC), a powerful organisation linked to MI5 that is responsible for protecting the UK’s critical information systems. Security experts set up an exercise to monitor the attacks, and immediately realised the hackers were well resourced.
“These were not normal hackers,” said a source close to the NISCC. “The degree of sophistication was extremely high. They were very clever programmers.”
A spokesman for the Home Office would only say: “We do not comment on security matters, but have had discussions with many governments and computer emergency response teams from around the world on this problem.”
According to research by US investigators, the hackers are thought to have been based in the Guangdong province in southern China. British and US security experts believe the hackers are working with the tacit approval – or possibly even direct support – of authorities in the People’s Republic of China and are attempting to acquire western technology in a massive hit and run raid on the world’s intellectual property to aid their booming economic growth.
A spokesman for the Chinese government said: “If there are such allegations then it is subject to further investigation.”
A wakeup call
Commodore Patrick Tyrrell, the UK’s first director of information warfare, warned about the likelihood of such an attack nearly 10 years ago. He believes the attack is a wakeup call to the government.
“This could certainly be seen as a provocative act. Up until now, governments have not set much store by information,” says Commodore Tyrrell, now managing director of the computer company Vale Atlantic. “The government has to take seriously the way [this kind of attack] is developing.”
The attack on the Commons may be the most eye-catching attack from Chinese-based hackers, but is certainly not unique.
According to a spokesman for MessageLabs, the company responsible for filtering malicious email from government networks, similar spy emails – called “targeted Trojans’ – were noticed about 18 months ago. “There were not very many, maybe one every two months, but now they are coming in at the rate of one to two a week,” said Maksym Schipka, MessageLab’s senior anti-virus researcher.
Last June, the government sent out a warning in which Roger Cummings, the head of NISCC, spoke about the threat of attacks from far eastern gangs on the UK critical national infrastructure (CNI) – the key network of transport, energy, financial, telecommunication and government organisations. At the end of November, Cummings warned that targeted Trojans from foreign powers were a significant threat.
In mid-December, the Cabinet Office – which has overall responsibility for ministries – joined in the chorus at a conference at Glamorgan University. Senior civil servant Harvey Mattison, the head of accreditation for the Cabinet Office’s Central Sponsor of Information Assurance, the unit responsible for protecting communications between government departments, gave a keynote address on the threat from the far east. “We were given the impression it was coming from one ISP in Guangdong,” said a delegate.
Mattison declined to comment except to say that his address was based on details from the NISCC alert.
Britain is not the only country targeted. Key parts of the US have been targeted by far eastern hackers for up to five years. Some of the attacks – codenamed Titan Rain – have been traced to just 20 workstations and three routers in Guangdong.
Alan Paller, head of the Sans Institute, the US’s top computer crime fighting organisation, has stated categorically that the attacks emanate from the People’s Republic. He points to attacks in November 2004, during which hackers grabbed thousands of sensitive documents.
The hackers stashed the stolen files in zombie servers in South Korea, before sending them back to Guangdong. In one, a researcher found a stockpile of aerospace documents with hundreds of detailed schematics about propulsion systems, solar paneling and fuel tanks for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Nasa probe launched in August.
On one night alone they copied a huge collection of files that had been stolen from the Redstone Arsenal, home to the US army’s Aviation and Missile Command in Alabama. The attackers had grabbed specifications for the aviation mission-planning system for army helicopters, as well as Falconview 3.2, the flight-planning software used by the army and air force.
For six hours the gang skipped through the computers of Redstone, the army’s Information Systems Engineering Command in Arizona, the Defense Information Systems Agency, Naval Ocean System Center in San Diego and the Space and Missile Defense Acquisition Center in Alabama.
“Of course it’s the [Chinese] government [that receives this information]. Governments will pay anything for control of other governments’ computers,” said Paller.
Other clues – such as the focus on economic espionage – suggest the attacks are not the work of run-of-the-mill hackers.
Computer criminals usually seek a quick turnaround of funds and an easy escape route. But economic secrets do not always have a ready cash market.
Sources involved in tracking down the gang say the Chinese group is just one of a number of organised groups around the world that are involved in a hi-tech crime wave, some working for governments, others highly organised criminal gangs.
“We have seen three attacks a day from this group in the past week and there are a lot of other groups out there,” said the source. “You could say that the iceberg is now in view.”
Privately, UK civil servants familiar with NISCC’s investigation agree that the attacks on the UK and US are coming from China. This almost certainly means some state sanction or involvement – perhaps even a “shopping list” of requirements.
Some of the attacks have been aimed at parts of the UK government dealing with human rights issues – “a very odd target”, according to one UK security source.
There is another, more compelling reason. “Hacking in China carries the death penalty,” says Professor Neil Barrett, of the Royal Military College at Shrivenham. “You also have to sign on with the police if you want to use the internet. And then there is the Great Firewall of China, which lets very little through – and lets [the Chinese government] know exactly what is happening.” The internet traffic to the UK, and its origin, would all be visible to the Chinese government. Finding the culprits would, in theory, be a simple process.
Another clue is the sophistication and cost of organising the attacks. MessageLab’s Schipka thinks such a scale required the resources of a very large company. “Either that, or a lot of small organisations are cooperating to help someone but the way these are done is spotless.”
“Whoever is doing this is well-funded,” said Dr Andrew Blyth, head of computer forensics at Glamorgan University. “They are not only able to develop sophisticated software but have also been able to develop websites that people are directed to by emails. These sites then corrupt their web browsers – it is very sophisticated stuff and it costs money to be able to mount an operation of this complexity.”
In the attacks, each individual receiving the emails and the organisation’s IT structure are meticulously researched. The Trojan emails are designed to appeal uniquely to victims. “One email was targeted at one company in aviation. It was a Word document that had a Math/cad component. If you did not have math/cad on your computer it would not open,” says Schipka. “The point was to find documents that had been written in that particular program and then send them back.”
Meanwhile, the Sans Institute has raised the idea that the Titan Rain attacks might even have a military origin. In the two-and-a-half years of investigation, the hackers never made a mistake. “It was like being against a master chess player except he was running around between different terminals in different locations,” said Alan Paller, of Sans. “There was a level of care and consistency behind this that has to indicate a military operation.”
Intriguingly, the Pentagon in its annual report of the military power of the People’s Republic of China, published on July 28 last year, noted the development of computer attack systems by China’s military, adding that the People’s Liberation army (PLA) regards computer network operations as being “critical to seize the initiative” in establishing “electromagnetic dominance” at the start of a battle.
The report added: “Although initial training efforts [by the PLA] focused on increasing the PLA’s proficiency in defensive measures, recent exercises have incorporated offensive operations, primarily as first strikes against enemy networks.”
Industrial espionage via computers is not new. In 1989, for example, German hackers from the Chaos Computer Club stole secrets from western defence companies and sold them to the KGB.
However, the sheer scale of the recent attacks have set alarm bells ringing in security circles around the western world; at the very least they ought to give MPs something to think about when they switch on their computers each morning.
Chinese hackers attack UK Houses of Parliament
Thursday, 19 January 2006 11:49