Friday, January 15, 2010

Operation Aurora - Attack Used Multiple Levels of Encryption & Stealth Programming

Via (Threat Level) -

Hackers seeking source code from Google, Adobe and dozens of other high-profile companies used unprecedented tactics that combined encryption, stealth programming and an unknown hole in Internet Explorer, according to new details released by the anti-virus firm McAfee.

“We have never ever, outside of the defense industry, seen commercial industrial companies come under that level of sophisticated attack,” says Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research for McAfee. “It’s totally changing the threat model.”


The attackers used nearly a dozen pieces of malware and several levels of encryption to burrow deeply into the bowels of company networks and obscure their activity, according to Alperovitch.

“The encryption was highly successful in obfuscating the attack and avoiding common detection methods,” he said. “We haven’t seen encryption at this level. It was highly sophisticated.”


Once the user visited the malicious site, their Internet Explorer browser was exploited to download an array of malware to their computer automatically and transparently. The programs unloaded seamlessly and silently onto the system, like Russian nesting dolls, flowing one after the other.

“The initial piece of code was shell code encrypted three times and that activated the exploit,” Alperovitch said. “Then it executed downloads from an external machine that dropped the first piece of binary on the host. That download was also encrypted. The encrypted binary packed itself into a couple of executables that were also encrypted.”

One of the malicious programs opened a remote backdoor to the computer, establishing an encrypted covert channel that masqueraded as an SSL connection to avoid detection. This allowed the attackers ongoing access to the computer and to use it as a “beachhead” into other parts of the network, Alperovitch said, to search for login credentials, intellectual property and whatever else they were seeking.


Alperovitch wouldn’t say what the attackers might have found once they were on company networks, other than to indicate that the high-value targets that were hit “were places of important intellectual property.”

iDefense, however, told Threat Level that the attackers were targeting source-code repositories of many of the companies and succeeded in reaching their target in many cases.


The sophistication of the attack was remarkable and was something that researchers have seen before in attacks on the defense industry, but never in the commercial sector. Generally, Alperovitch said, in attacks on commercial entities, the focus is on obtaining financial data, and the attackers typically use common methods for breaching the network, such as SQL-injection attacks through a company’s web site or through unsecured wireless networks.

“Cyber criminals are good … but they cut corners. They don’t spend a lot of time tweaking things and making sure that every aspect of the attack is obfuscated,” he said.

Alperovitch said that McAfee has more information about the hacks that it’s not prepared to disclose at present but hopes to be able to discuss them in the future. Their primary goal, he said, was to get as much information public now to allow people to protect themselves.

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