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Ex-US Army man: NYT hacks part of wider war on western media firms

Mainland Chinese journos also 'put at risk', claims security bod

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Recent hack attacks on the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal may be simply the most prominent out of a wider series of assaults against western media firms, according to a cyber-security intelligence firm.

Researchers have said that at least six separate Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups are likely responsible for targeting US, UK, Australian, Canadian, Korean and Philippine media organisations, newspapers, wire outlets, their affiliates and or customers. Cyber Squared said it has been tracking these groups for more than two years using ThreatConnect.com, its collaborative cyber intelligence exchange whose members include government agencies, banks, non-profits, manufacturers etc. The exchange collects, analyses and shares threat intelligence - akin to a neighbourhood watch scheme.

Adam Vincent, chief exec of Cyber Squared, and a former cyber security specialist with the US government, told El Reg that the APT group that targeted the NYT has likely leveraged similar trade-craft against one other Korean news service.

"Access to news services would provide China State Security personnel insights to the internal news cycles, confidential sources and information that may subject mainland-Chinese journalists and sources to arrest or intimidation," Vincent explained.

Rich Barger, chief intelligence officer at Cyber Squared, and a former US Army intelligence analyst, said components of the same infrastructure used to attack western media organisations have previously been used to attack an international, multi-language US-based news service that is tied the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong (outlawed in China) and has often been critical of Chinese policies and human rights abuses.

Barger also claimed that the same group of hackers had also targeted a popular international publisher of a global metals journal and metals trading news. This was part of a much wider cyber-espionage campaign by the group that cost its mainly US victims millions, he said.

The intelligence chief added that all the 19 APT that his team had tracked are very likely to be Chinese, including the six that were discovered to be targeting Western media outlets. The size of the groups, their internal structure and the degree of co-operation between different groups remains unclear. Barger said that the groups occasionally got in each others' way, even although they appeared to be directed towards broadly the same aims and use similar techniques (such as custom malware and spear-phishing). "Sometimes the left hand doesn't know what right is doing," he said.

Some security commentators have called for more evidence before the conclusion that the NYT was targeted by the Chinese can be accepted. However Barger said that use of related malware strains, the same or similar hacking tools and the same infrastructure (botnet control nodes, drop sites, exploit sites etc) in attacks as well as other factors provides a body of circumstantial evidence that betrays the probable identity of attackers over time.

"It's not an overnight thing but when you look at the malware, hacking utilities, and infrastructure behind attacks as well as the ways and means and geo-political context it tells a story," Barger explained. "It's all additional pieces of the puzzle.

"The attacks are not always advanced but they are aggressive, persistent and well-resourced. When you look at a large number of attacks over a long time, taking data from multiple sources, it removes the fog of ambiguity. There's a strong likelihood that all these groups are Chinese," he claimed, adding that the attacks have been running since at least 2009 and possibly before.

Both Barger and Vincent stressed it was important to look at factors such as who benefits from attacks and possible motivations as much as technical factors before deciding on attribution.

Barber added that organisations can guard against attacks not by relying on any technology but rather by adopting sharing best practice and intelligence and adapting security policies to fit the threats as they surface. ®

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