Feeds

UK trojan siege has been running over a year

"State-sponsored or highest level organized crime"

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

The essential guide to IT transformation

One of the UK's most secretive security organisations is hunting down a gang of high tech criminals in the Far East that has been attacking the computer systems of Government departments and multi-national companies to steal secrets.

The gang, which many experts say is either being headed up by a computer master criminal or a spy chief, has been responsible for well over a 1,000 computer break-in attempts over the last few months and has so far attacked 50 countries across the globe.

The National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre, which is part of MI5, has broken ranks to warn that a highly sophisticated high-tech gang has been trying to place bugging programs inside sensitive computer systems in a bid to steal Government and business secrets.

"To have achieved what this gang are doing then it either has to be state-sponsored or the highest level or organised crime," said Dr Andrew Blyth, head of Glamorgan University's Computer Forensics Department, who has worked with the UK's law enforcement agencies to develop technology to combat high-tech crime.

According to Blyth rumours of the attacks have been circulating for a number of months now and within the last month CESG, a part of GCHQ, provided information on how to counter the attacks at a special briefing in London.

Blyth is not alone, and other computer security experts are warning that the attacks demonstrate a high level or expertise and claim that this is being coupled with the use of techniques known as social engineering to obtain email addresses and names of targets that it points to a large group of hackers who are capable of co-operating and keeping quiet.

"This is not the pattern of behaviour that we have been used to in the past from hackers," said a former intelligence official.

"Nor does it appear to have the incentives that organised crime is after in terms of a fast financial return."

However according to high level sources involved in tracking the gang down, it is one of a number of organised groups that are spreading around the world in a high tech crime wave.

"We have seen three attacks a day from this group in the last week and there are a lot of other groups out there too. You could say that the iceberg is now in view."

Ironically, the group's success has been built not on the use of homework but by the use of computer viruses that have broadcast the internal lists of names, positions and phone and email addresses back to the hackers.

"This is not as targeted as is being suggested," the sources said. “They are attacking the systems that they randomly obtained data on. If you like, you could say that these companies have already been attacked and that this is the second round."

The information from the source backs up statements from NISCC that the gang can turn each attack around within 2 hours.

The gang – believe to number no more than 12 - works by identifying particular individuals in a company or organisation, obtaining their email addresses and then sending them an email designed to appeal to their interests.

The email contains a computer program known as a Trojan that is opened when the person clicks on it and is installed on their computer without their knowing it.

This program then sends out information from the machine. The gang then works by either blackmailing the company and threatening to send the information to a competitor unless they are paid or by threatening to portray the particular employee who loaded the Trojan as being in league with them.

"You must not think that these are normal Trojan programs," said Paul Woods, a computer security expert for MessageLabs, a company specialising in monitoring internet traffic.

"They change the program for every message so that it is not picked up by the anti-virus and spyware filters. They also change them so that they can suck information from particular programs that are used in a specific industry.

"That means that if they have bugged a design program that the computer can send off details of whatever is designed on it to the gang."

According to MessageLabs, which started to intercept the attacks when they first appeared, the emails all display the work of what looks like one gang using similar techniques and tell tale signs.

"They are different every time and must put around one to two days to put together. They are very well crafted, often look as though they come from a news organisation and all of the sources indicate that they are coming from the same place in Asia," said Alex Shipp, a senior virus analyst with MessageLabs

NISCC said that the attacks on 300 organisations have been going on for a number of months now but inquiries have discovered that they have been going on for well over a year, having started in March 2004, and have been running at between 10 and 20 a week since then.

"They appear to be returning to attack the same companies but they don't use the same email address twice. The level of homework is impressive," said a source.

The NISCC protects vital infrastructure including Government departments and companies working in communications, energy, finance, health and transport.

According to sources attacks have been made on particular sectors such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals and human rights organizations.

Peter Tippett, the chief Technology Officer of CyberTrust, a company that provides intelligence on cyber crime said it would be a mistake to view the attacks as a isolated incident.

"I think you will find that this is one group that is getting identified a little more than the others at the moment."

A Home Office spokesman said that NISCC was now working with organizations in the Far East and is close to turning off the computers where the attacks are coming from.

"One of the reasons that we have put out this warning is because we are trying to find out what the scale of the attack has been and whether it has just been on the critical national infrastructure that the NISCC protects," said the spokesman.

Peter Warren is a freelance journalist specialising in technology, undercover investigations and science issues. You can find out more about him at Future Intelligence.

Tonight at 7pm on BBC2 the Money Programme will be broadcasting Britain's Hi-Tech Crime Wave.

Related stories

UK under cyber blitz
Failing UK cyber defences need overhaul
UK.gov launches virus advice site
Big guns back UK IT security drive

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

More from The Register

next story
Goog says patch⁵⁰ your Chrome
64-bit browser loads cat vids FIFTEEN PERCENT faster!
Chinese hackers spied on investigators of Flight MH370 - report
Classified data on flight's disappearance pinched
KER-CHING! CryptoWall ransomware scam rakes in $1 MEEELLION
Anatomy of the net's most destructive ransomware threat
NIST to sysadmins: clean up your SSH mess
Too many keys, too badly managed
Scratched PC-dispatch patch patched, hatched in batch rematch
Windows security update fixed after triggering blue screens (and screams) of death
Researchers camouflage haxxor traps with fake application traffic
Honeypots sweetened to resemble actual workloads, complete with 'secure' logins
prev story

Whitepapers

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup
Learn why inSync received the highest overall rating from Druva and is the top choice for the mobile workforce.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.