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Two Chinese schools implicated in Google Aurora attacks

Not us guv, we only teach Photoshop here

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Two Chinese schools with links to the armed forces have become implicated as suspects in the ongoing Operations Aurora attacks against Google and at least 33 other western conglomerates last December.

Security experts, including investigators from the National Security Agency, now reckon the attacks date from April last year, far earlier than previously suspected, the New York Times reports. Although the attacks originated from China, it's by no means clear that they were orchestrated by the Chinese government. It's even possible that hackers from outside China ran, or had an involvement in, at least some of the attacks.

However one prominent strand in the ongoing investigation is focusing on two Chinese computer science facilities - Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Lanxiang Vocational School - according to unnamed investigators, the NYT reports. Lanxiang is a vocational school involved in training some military computer scientists. Jiaotong is a top flight university that runs well-regarded computer science courses.

Officials at the two schools said they are yet to hear from US investigators. An unnamed professor at Jiaotong's school of information security engineering told the NYT that students sometimes hack western websites while also noting that hijacking of its IP addresses by external hackers is commonplace. Staff at Lanxiang told The Guardian that its students were middle-school students learning skills such as Photoshop.

Hmmm.

The NYT article by John Markoff and David Barboza is light on details as to what might have led investigators into suspecting the two schools. Markoff is a veteran business journalist who wrote about the 1990s pursuit and eventually capture of hacker Kevin Mitnick. This account was criticised by several people unaffiliated with Mitnick in the information security community as exaggerating the hacker's exploits.

The best minds in computer security have been applying themselves to unpicking the Operation Aurora attacks which, in part, targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. This aspect of the attack prompted Google to publicly threaten to quit China and triggered a huge diplomatic row between China and the US over internet freedom and censorship. Google controversially later called in the NSA to help in its investigation.

In truth, the attacks are similar to cyber-espionage attacks, aimed at extracting industrial secrets or hacking into government systems that have been going on for at least five years, if not longer. Often these attacks take advantage of unpatched vulnerabilities in browser software, especially IE. Targeted attacks with booby-trapped PDF files designed to take advantage of Adobe-related security bugs are another favourite.

Much of the detailed analysis of the Operation Aurora attacks remains private or classified.

What is known is that as yet unidentified hackers used zero-day (unpatched) vulnerabilities in IE6, in targeted attacks aimed at tricking users into visiting booby-trapped websites, featuring a JavaScript-based exploit. Social networking sites are thought to have been used for reconnaissance work, helping attackers to draw up a list of targets and their friends and business contacts. This enabled poison pill emails to be spoofed, so at to appear to come from a target's contacts.

An exploit was used to drop a backdoor onto compromised Windows systems hit via the attack. This backdoor made encrypted connections to command and control servers in Texas, hacked Rackspace servers, and Taiwan.

Dynamic DNS is a key feature of the attack, with many of the thus far identified command and control servers operating from domains registered through Peng Yong’s 3322.org service in China. This is according to a detailed technical analysis of the attacks from cyber-security services firm HBGary.

The firm - which has carried out the most detailed technical analysis of the attacks publicly available thus far - adds that "while Peng Yong is clearly tolerant of cyber crime operating through his domain services, this does not indicate he has any direct involvement with Aurora."

"Evidence collected around the malware operation suggests that Operation Aurora is simply an example of highly effective malware penetration," it concludes. "There is not significant evidence to attribute the operation directly to the Chinese Government. However, key actors have been identified in association with malware operations that utilize Chinese systems and native language malware." ®

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