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Security researchers have traced a continuing run of zero-day attacks to the hackers who infamously hit Google and other hi-tech firms three years ago.

Symantec has kept close tabs on the hackers behind the so-called Aurora attacks ever since. No other group has used more zero-day vulnerabilities – eight – to further their malicious goals than the attackers behind Aurora (Hydraq) and other related attacks, the researchers said. Previous unknown vulnerabilities leveraged by the group have included Internet Explorer and Adobe Flash security bugs.

Identifying zero-day attacks takes hard graft as well as skills in reverse-engineering, a factor that means the group must be well-resourced.

"The group behind the Hydraq attacks is very much still active, with evidence indicating their involvement in a consistent and ongoing pattern of large-scale targeted attacks," according to Symantec.

"Targeted sectors include, but are not limited to: the defence industry, human rights and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and IT service providers," it added.

Attacks used to be launched via targeted email (phishing) but over the years the group has moved on towards increased adoption of "watering hole" attacks – the "watering holes" being websites likely to be visited by the gazelle-like target organisation. Defence supply chain firms (suppliers of electronics and other sub components) of defence systems have been the prime target of these attacks. Suppliers are selected because they have lower security standards than tier-one defence contractors, who have been a prime target for cyber-espionage many years.

The attackers reuse components of an infrastructure Symantec has dubbed the Elderwood Platform. Most of the attacks have focused on either intelligence gathering or swiping valuable trade secrets from compromised computers, say the researchers.

"Although there are other attackers utilising zero-day exploits (for example, the Sykipot, Nitro, or even Stuxnet attacks), we have seen no other group use so many," a blog post by Symantec security response concludes.

At the time of the 2010 hack, Google all but said the attackers behind the Aurora attacks were backed by the Chinese government. Symantec is more circumspect.

The number of victims, the duration of the ongoing attacks as well as their apparent goal of wholesale intelligence and intellectual property theft mean the group must be backed by a nation state or (less probably) a large criminal organisation.

A white paper by Symantec on the ongoing attacks by the group can be found here (PDF). ®

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