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Dozens of chemical firms hit in espionage hack attack

Defense contractors, Fortune 100 companies, too

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Dozens of companies in the defense and chemical industries have been targeted in an industrial espionage campaign that steals confidential data from computers infected with malware, researchers from Symantec said.

At least 29 companies involved in the research, development, and manufacture of chemicals and an additional 19 firms in defense and other industries have been attacked since the middle of July, Symantec researchers wrote in the report (PDF) released Monday. The unknown attackers used back door trojans, including a variant of the publicly available Poison Ivy, to exfiltrate data from victims - including multiple Fortune 100 companies involved in the research and development of chemical compounds and advanced materials.

“These attacks are primarily targeting private industry in search of key intellectual property for competitive advantage, military institutions, and governmental organizations often in search of documents related to current political events and human rights organizations,” the eight-page Symantec report stated. “This attack campaign focused on the chemical sector with the goal of obtaining sensitive documents such as proprietary designs, formulas, and manufacturing processes.”

The campaign, which the Symantec researchers have dubbed "Nitro," wasn't disrupted until the middle of September.

The majority of infected machines found connecting to command and control servers were located in the US, Bangladesh, and the UK. Other infected computers came from an additional 17 countries, including Argentina, Singapore, and China.

Some of the attacks have been traced to a computer that acted as a virtual private server by an individual located in the Hebei region of China. While a person calling himself Covert Grove claimed he used the system for legitimate reasons, the researchers said his denial seemed “suspicious.”

“We are unable to determine if Covert Grove is the sole attacker or if he has a direct or only indirect role,” they wrote. “Nor are we able to definitively determine if he is hacking these targets on behalf of another party or multiple parties.”

The attacks typically begin with emails purporting to warn of unpatched vulnerabilities in the Adobe Reader program from the recipient's IT department. When the recipient clicks on one of two files included, Poison Ivy or Backdoor.0divy is installed. Security provider Norman ASA has technical information about the malicious payloads here.

Several other groups that appear to be unrelated are targeting some of the same chemical companies with malicious documents that exploit vulnerabilities in Adobe Reader and Microsoft Office. As a result, the victims are infected with Backdoor.Sogu, the same custom-developed threat used to steal personal information from as many as 35 million users of a South Korean social network, the Symantec researchers said. ®

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