Thursday, March 29, 2012

Case Based in China Puts a Face on Persistent Hacking

Via New York Times -

A breach of computers belonging to companies in Japan and India and to Tibetan activists has been linked to a former graduate student at a Chinese university — putting a face on the persistent espionage by Chinese hackers against foreign companies and groups.

The attacks were connected to an online alias, according to a report to be released on Friday by Trend Micro, a computer security firm with headquarters in Tokyo.

The owner of the alias, according to online records, is Gu Kaiyuan, a former graduate student at Sichuan University, in Chengdu, China, which receives government financing for its research in computer network defense.

Mr. Gu is now apparently an employee at Tencent, China’s leading Internet portal company, also according to online records. According to the report, he may have recruited students to work on the university’s research involving computer attacks and defense.

The researchers did not link the attacks directly to government-employed hackers. But security experts and other researchers say the techniques and the victims point to a state-sponsored campaign.

“The fact they targeted Tibetan activists is a strong indicator of official Chinese government involvement,” said James A. Lewis, a former diplomat and expert in computer security who is a director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “A private Chinese hacker may go after economic data but not a political organization.”

Neither the Chinese embassy in Washington nor the Chinese consulate in New York answered requests for comment.

The Trend Micro report describes systematic attacks on at least 233 personal computers. The victims include Indian military research organizations and shipping companies; aerospace, energy and engineering companies in Japan; and at least 30 computer systems of Tibetan advocacy groups, according to both the report and interviews with experts connected to the research. The espionage has been going on for at least 10 months and is continuing, the report says.

In the report, the researchers detailed how they had traced the attacks to an e-mail address used to register one of the command-and-control servers that directed the attacks. They mapped that address to a QQ number — China’s equivalent of an online instant messaging screen name — and from there to an online alias.

The person who used the alias, “scuhkr” — the researchers said in an interview that it could be shorthand for Sichuan University hacker — wrote articles about hacking, which were posted to online hacking forums and, in one case, recruited students to a computer network and defense research program at Sichuan University’s Institute of Information Security in 2005, the report said.

The New York Times traced that alias to Mr. Gu. According to online records, Mr. Gu studied at Sichuan University from 2003 to 2006, when he wrote numerous articles about hacking under the names of “scuhkr” and Gu Kaiyuan. Those included a master’s thesis about computer attacks and prevention strategies. The Times connected Mr. Gu to Tencent first through an online university forum, which listed where students found jobs, and then through a call to Tencent.

Reached at Tencent and asked about the attacks, Mr. Gu said, “I have nothing to say.”


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