Friday, January 15, 2010

Cyber Attack on Google and Others

On Tuesday, Google reported in their official blog that in mid-December they detected a "highly sophisticated and targeted" attack on their corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. Additionally, Google stated in this blog that 20 other large companies were similarly targeted. Google went on to state that they have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. This incident, as well as the limitation on free speech imposed on Google by the Chinese government, is forcing Google to review the feasibility of their business operations in China.

In follow-up, a number of security firms who are supporting the investigation have concluded that the number of attacked companies is not 20 but between 30 and 34. Most of the attacked were large Fortune 500 companies. The attack code named "Aurora" by the attackers was made up of dozens of pieces of malware, and several levels of encryption to hide itself in the targeted company networks and to obscure activity.

The U.S. Government has been under this type of attack for many years. This is the first time that a highly organized and sophisticated attack was launched on private industry. Who knows what the impact of this will be on the global economy? The mind can only fathom what would happen if each of the companies attacked lost some intellectual property which resulted in them being "second to market" for a product that they have been planning for and building for months or even years.

What we know about Aurora

There is some debate currently on whether Aurora leveraged a vulnerability in Internet Explorer and Adobe's Reader and Acrobat applications or whether the attack only leveraged Internet Explorer. Either way, Aurora installation began on the targeted system by viewing a malicious website or potentially through opening a PDF document sent in an email but as I mentioned this has not been substantiated by Adobe. Once executed in the browser an encrypted shell script would run. The shell script downloaded the binary from an external machine which once executed would open a backdoor to the attackers Command and Control servers. These servers were purportedly running in hosted facilities in the US. This allowed the attacker some level of access into the users machine and the network to which the machine is connected.

Microsoft Versions Affected:

According to Microsoft, Internet Explorer 6 Service Pack 1 on Microsoft Windows 2000 Service Pack 4, and Internet Explorer 6, Internet Explorer 7 and Internet Explorer 8 on supported editions of Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, Windows 7, and Windows Server 2008 R2 are affected.

Let's review the time line of events in this event. The following dates/times were derived from various sources on the internet.

Mid-December - Google detects a "highly sophisticated and targeted" cyber attack

January 2nd - Adobe becomes aware of "sophisticated, and coordinated" cyber attack

January 4th - Attack seems to have stopped as Command & Control Servers are shut down

January 12th/3pm - Google announces the Cyber Attack via blog

January 12th/3:16pm - Adobe announces the Cyber Attack via blog

January 12th/Evening - U.S. Government asks China for an Explanation

January 14th - Microsoft issues a security advisory

When looking at the time line the scary thing is that the attack seems to have been commencing from mid-December (let's say the 15th). If Google detected it at its start, which may not be the case, and it was not shut down till January 4th, the attackers had 21 days of access. It's scary to think how much information could have been stolen and potentially how much damage the attackers could have done in 21 days should this have been their goal.

As stated in the U.S. Government Cyberspace policy review, information and communication networks are largely owned and operated by the private sector, both nationally and internationally. The report goes on to state that Cyber security requires a public-private partnership as well as international cooperation. Unfortunately, we are sorely lacking in the ability to ensure a coordinated response and recovery to a significant incident should one occur. This time line only proves this point. It appears as though private/public communication did not effectively start till January 12th, during this time companies were infiltrated, but yet may not have known. Even if Google had notified all the companies it derived were under attack from the information they had available, there is nothing to say that another attack was not going on simultaneously by the same attackers but disconnected from the one affiliated with Google.

With worldwide cyber attacks becoming more focused, we must accelerate our ability to deal with them more rapidly in a coordinated fashion. This particular instance seems to have been about stealing information, monetary gain, or political issues. We need to remember that it could just have easily been about disrupting critical national infrastructure for pursuit of national disorganization and loss of life.


  1. One of the big problems coming to the surface in the national media is just how hard it is to attribute an attack due to the ability of attackers to route themselves through various other machines and countries.

    It's very scary to think of the impact an attack could have that may very well NOT have originated from the blamed party. It makes me wonder if some sort of signed/certificate based Internet is needed.

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