We know it’s prevalent, but there’s some new information:
Secret U.S. State Department cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to Reuters by a third party, trace systems breaches—colorfully code-named “Byzantine Hades” by U.S. investigators—to the Chinese military. An April 2009 cable even pinpoints the attacks to a specific unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Privately, U.S. officials have long suspected that the Chinese government and in particular the military was behind the cyber-attacks. What was never disclosed publicly, until now, was evidence.
U.S. efforts to halt Byzantine Hades hacks are ongoing, according to four sources familiar with investigations. In the April 2009 cable, officials in the State Department’s Cyber Threat Analysis Division noted that several Chinese-registered Web sites were “involved in Byzantine Hades intrusion activity in 2006.”
The sites were registered in the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in central China, according to the cable. A person named Chen Xingpeng set up the sites using the “precise” postal code in Chengdu used by the People’s Liberation Army Chengdu Province First Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (TRB), an electronic espionage unit of the Chinese military. “Much of the intrusion activity traced to Chengdu is similar in tactics, techniques and procedures to (Byzantine Hades) activity attributed to other” electronic spying units of the People’s Liberation Army, the cable says.
What is known is the extent to which Chinese hackers use “spear-phishing” as their preferred tactic to get inside otherwise forbidden networks. Compromised email accounts are the easiest way to launch spear-phish because the hackers can send the messages to entire contact lists.
The tactic is so prevalent, and so successful, that “we have given up on the idea we can keep our networks pristine,” says Stewart Baker, a former senior cyber-security official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency. It’s safer, government and private experts say, to assume the worst—that any network is vulnerable.
Two former national security officials involved in cyber-investigations told Reuters that Chinese intelligence and military units, and affiliated private hacker groups, actively engage in “target development” for spear-phish attacks by combing the Internet for details about U.S. government and commercial employees’ job descriptions, networks of associates, and even the way they sign their emails—such as U.S. military personnel’s use of “V/R,” which stands for “Very Respectfully” or “Virtual Regards.”
The spear-phish are “the dominant attack vector. They work. They’re getting better. It’s just hard to stop,” says Gregory J. Rattray, a partner at cyber-security consulting firm Delta Risk and a former director for cyber-security on the National Security Council.
Spear-phish are used in most Byzantine Hades intrusions, according to a review of State Department cables by Reuters. But Byzantine Hades is itself categorized into at least three specific parts known as “Byzantine Anchor,” “Byzantine Candor,” and “Byzantine Foothold.” A source close to the matter says the sub-codenames refer to intrusions which use common tactics and malicious code to extract data.
A State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks last December highlights the severity of the spear-phish problem. “Since 2002, (U.S. government) organizations have been targeted with social-engineering online attacks” which succeeded in “gaining access to hundreds of (U.S. government) and cleared defense contractor systems,” the cable said. The emails were aimed at the U.S. Army, the Departments of Defense, State and Energy, other government entities and commercial companies.
By the way, reading this blog entry might be illegal under the U.S. Espionage Act:
Dear Americans: If you are not “authorized” personnel, but you have read, written about, commented upon, tweeted, spread links by “liking” on Facebook, shared by email, or otherwise discussed “classified” information disclosed from WikiLeaks, you could be implicated for crimes under the U.S. Espionage Act—or so warns a legal expert who said the U.S. Espionage Act could make “felons of us all.”
As the U.S. Justice Department works on a legal case against WikiLeak’s Julian Assange for his role in helping publish 250,000 classified U.S. diplomatic cables, authorities are leaning toward charging Assange with spying under the Espionage Act of 1917. Legal experts warn that if there is an indictment under the Espionage Act, then any citizen who has discussed or accessed “classified” information can be arrested on “national security” grounds.
Maybe I should have warned you at the top of this post.
Posted on April 18, 2011 at 9:33 AM •