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McAfee uncovers large-scale Night Dragon Chinese hacks


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Latest revelations focus on attacks on oil, energy and petrochemical firms

Just over a year after the Operation Aurora Chinese hacking revelations shook the world, security vendor McAfee has uncovered another large-scale, covert and targeted attack likely to have originated in the region, dubbed Night Dragon.

Dating possibly as far back as four years ago, Night Dragon attacks are aimed specifically at global oil, energy and petrochemical companies with the aim of harvesting intelligence on new opportunities and sensitive operational data which would give a competitive advantage to another party.

The attacks use methodical but far from sophisticated hacking techniques, according to McAfee's European director of security strategy, Greg Day.

First the hackers compromise extranet web servers using a common SQL injection attack, allowing remote command execution.

Commonly available hacking tools are then uploaded to the compromised web servers, allowing access to the intranet and therefore sensitive desktop and internal servers.

Password cracking tools then allow the hackers to access further desktops and servers, while disabling Internet Explorer proxy settings allows direct communication from infected machines to the internet, said McAfee.

The hackers then use the specific Remote Access Trojan or Remote Administration Tool (RAT) program to browse through email archives and other sensitive documents on various desktops, specifically targeting executives.

Night Dragon hackers also tried spear phishing techniques on mobile worker laptops and compromising corporate VPN accounts in order to get past the corporate firewall and conduct reconnaissance of specific computers.

Although there is no clear evidence that the attacks were carried out by the state, individuals or corporations, there are clear links to China, said McAfee.

For example, it was from several locations in China that individuals " leveraged command-and-control servers on purchased hosted services in the US and compromised servers in the Netherlands", said the security vendor in a white paper entitled Global Energy Cyberattacks: Night Dragon (PDF).

In addition, many of the tools used in the attacks, such as WebShell and ASPXSpy, are commonplace on Chinese hacker sites, while the RAT malware was found to communicate to its operator only during the nine to five working hours of Chinese local time.

McAfee said that researchers had seen evidence of Night Dragon attacks going back at least two years.

"Why is it only now coming to light? Well, the environments and security controls these days are so complex it is very easy for them to slip under the radar of visibility," Day explained.

"Only really in the last few weeks have we been able to get enough intelligence together to join the dots up, so our goal now is to make the public aware."

Day advised any company which suspects it may have been targeted to go back and look through anti-virus and network traffic logs to see whether systems have been compromised.

Low level day-to-day problems can often be tell-tale signs of a larger, more concerted attack, he added.

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