Operation: NIGHT DRAGON Nothing New, but It Bears Some Repeating
Night Dragon Chinese hackers go after energy firms
Latest revelations from McAfee highlight large scale covert attacks emanating from the regionPhil Muncaster, V3.co.uk 10 Feb 2011
Just over a year after the Operation Aurora Chinese hacking revelations shook the world, security vendor McAfee has uncovered another large-scale, covert and targeted attack likely to have originated in the region, dubbed Night Dragon.
Dating possibly as far back as four years ago, Night Dragon attacks are aimed specifically at global oil, energy and petrochemical companies with the aim of harvesting intelligence on new opportunities and sensitive operational data which would give a competitive advantage to another party.
The attacks use methodical but far from sophisticated hacking techniques, according to McAfee’s European director of security strategy, Greg Day.
First the hackers compromise extranet web servers using a common SQL injection attack, allowing remote command execution.
Commonly available hacking tools are then uploaded to the compromised web servers, allowing access to the intranet and therefore sensitive desktop and internal servers.
Password cracking tools then allow the hackers to access further desktops and servers, while disabling Internet Explorer proxy settings allows direct communication from infected machines to the internet, said McAfee.
The hackers then use the specific Remote Access Trojan or Remote Administration Tool (RAT) program to browse through email archives and other sensitive documents on various desktops, specifically targeting executives.
Night Dragon hackers also tried spear phishing techniques on mobile worker laptops and compromising corporate VPN accounts in order to get past the corporate firewall and conduct reconnaissance of specific computers.
Although there is no clear evidence that the attacks were carried out by the state, individuals or corporations, there are clear links to China, said McAfee.
For example, it was from several locations in China that individuals ” leveraged command-and-control servers on purchased hosted services in the US and compromised servers in the Netherlands”, said the security vendor in a white paper entitled Global Energy Cyberattacks: Night Dragon (PDF).
In addition, many of the tools used in the attacks, such as WebShell and ASPXSpy, are commonplace on Chinese hacker sites, while the RAT malware was found to communicate to its operator only during the nine to five working hours of Chinese local time.
McAfee said that researchers had seen evidence of Night Dragon attacks going back at least two years.
“Why is it only now coming to light? Well, the environments and security controls these days are so complex it is very easy for them to slip under the radar of visibility,” Day explained.
“Only really in the last few weeks have we been able to get enough intelligence together to join the dots up, so our goal now is to make the public aware.”
Day advised any company which suspects it may have been targeted to go back and look through anti-virus and network traffic logs to see whether systems have been compromised.
Low level day-to-day problems can often be tell-tale signs of a larger, more concerted attack, he added.
William Beer, a director in PricewaterhouseCooper’s OneSecurity practice argued that the revelations show that traditional defences just don’t work.
“The cost to oil, gas and petrochemical companies of this size could be huge, but important lessons can be learned to fend off further attacks,” he added.
“More investment and focus, as well as support and awareness of the security function, is required from business leaders. Across companies of any size and industry, investment in security measures pays for itself many times over.”
Lately there has been a bit of a hullabaloo about Night Dragon. Frankly, coming from where I do having been in the defense contracting sector, this is nothing new at all. In fact, this is just a logical progression in the “Thousand Grains of Sand” approach that the Chinese have regarding espionage, including the industrial variety. They are patient and they are persistent which makes their operations all the more successful against us.
The article above also has a pdf file from Mcaffee that is a watered down explanation of the modus operandi as well as unfortunately, comes off as a sales document for their AV products. Aside from this, the article and pdf make a few interesting points that are not really expanded upon.
1) The attacks are using the hacked systems/networks own admin access means to exfiltrate the data and escalate access into the core network. This has effectively bypassed the AV and other means of detection that might put a stop to a hack via malware.
2) The data that the Chinese have exfiltrated was not elaborated on. Much of the data concerns future gas/oil discovery. This gives the Chinese a leg up on how to manipulate the markets as well as get their own foot in the door in places where new sources of energy are being mined for.
All in all, a pretty standard operation for the Chinese. The use of the low tek hacking to evade the tripwire of AV is rather clever, but then again many of us in the industry really don’t feel that AV is worth the coding cycles put into it. Nothing too special here really. Mostly though, this gives more insight into a couple of things;
1) The APT wasn’t just a Google thing
2) Energy is a top of the list thing, and given the state of affairs today with the Middle East and the domino effect going on with regime change, we should pay more attention.
Now, let me give you a hint at who is next… Can you say wheat? Yep, take a look at this last year’s wheat issues.. Wouldn’t be surprised if some of the larger combines didn’t have the same discoveries of malware and exfiltration going on.