'Night Dragon' attacks from China strike energy companies

McAfee said the intrusions targeted intellectual property and have been going on for as long as four years

Chinese hackers working regular business hours shifts stole sensitive intellectual property from energy companies for as long as four years using relatively unsophisticated intrusion methods in an operation dubbed "Night Dragon," according to a new report from security vendor McAfee.

The oil, gas and petrochemical companies targeted were hit with technical attacks on their public-facing Web sites, said Greg Day , director of security strategy. The hackers also used persuasive social-engineering techniques to get key executives in Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Greece, and the U.S. to divulge information.

[ Further reading: Night Dragon brings security vulnerabilities into the boardroom ]

The attacks have been linked to China due to the use of Chinese hacking tools commonly seen on underground hacking forums. Further, the attacks appeared to originate from computers on IP (Internet protocol) addresses in Beijing, between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time there, suggesting that the culprits were regular company employees rather than freelance or unprofessional hackers, McAfee said in its report.

Although McAfee said a group of hackers likely executed the attacks, it had pinpointed "one individual" located in Heze City in Shandong Province "who has provided the crucial C&C infrastructure to the attackers."

"It is likely this person is aware or has information that can help identify at least some of the individuals, groups, or organizations responsible for these intrusions," McAfee said. Day said it is routine for McAfee to notify law enforcement in such instances.

McAfee's report is just the latest to underscore the continuing efforts of hackers to steal sensitive corporate information. In late 2009, Google said it had seen attacks believed to come from China, which targeted dozens of other multinational companies, called "Operation Aurora."

McAfee did not publicly identify the companies attacked, but Day said some employed McAfee's professional services consultants.

Writing on a company blog, McAfee's CTO George Kurtz said the attackers used "an elaborate mix of hacking techniques" but methods and tools that were "relatively unsophisticated."

But while seemingly downplaying the hackers' methods, McAfee admitted that it had only recently been able to detect the broad pattern.

"Only through recent analysis and the discovery of common artifacts and evidence correlation have we been able to determine that a dedicated effort has been ongoing for at least two years, and likely as many as four," the report said.

Day said that despite penetration testing designed to ensure a company's IT systems are secure, the breadth and complexity of corporate computer systems has made it increasingly difficult to link malicious actions together.

"I don’t want to say it’s the thing right under the nose that you miss but it's the very reality that things get through due to the depth and scope of the world we have to deal with today," Day said. "We keep seeing all kinds of infiltration because of that challenge."

The attacks often focused on the companies' public-facing Web sites, which were attacked using methods such as SQL injection, where hackers try to get backend databases to reply to commands that should be blocked. SQL injection attacks can often return sensitive information or allow for different kinds of attacks.

Once a web server had been compromised, the attackers would then upload programs such as remote administration tools (RATs). Those tools are often used by system administrators to fix computers from afar, as they allow complete access to a machine and let administrators see the system as if they were sitting right in front of it.

From there, the hackers would browse around other areas such as Active Directory, a Microsoft system used to provision network access to employees on corporate networks. They used password-cracking tools to get privileged access to other services on the network containing sensitive information such as market intelligence reports and information on operational production systems, Day said.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags malwaremcafeeintrusionExploits / vulnerabilities

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?