The Internet security firm McAfee has uncovered the largest series of cyber attacks ever — for the past five years hackers have infiltrated 72 organizations including defense firms, the United Nations and the American government.
Although McAfee won’t say who the company believes is responsible for the attacks, sources say the leading suspect is China.
“This is the biggest transfer of wealth in terms of intellectual property in history,” Dmitri Alperovitch, McAfee’s vice president of threat research, told Reuters.
“The scale at which this is occurring is really, really frightening.”
McAfee’s investigation — dubbed Operation Shady RAT after “remote access tool,” software that security experts and hackers use to remotely access computer networks — examined information from organizations that believed they may have been hacked.
“In some cases we were permitted to delve a bit deeper and see what, if anything, had been taken, and in many cases we found evidence that intellectual property had been stolen,” McAfee’s chief European technology officer, Raj Samani, told BBC News.
“The United Nations, the Indian government, the International Olympic Committee, the steel industry, defense firms, even computer security companies were hit.”
Other hacking victims include the governments of the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Canada, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
In the case of the United Nations, the hackers infiltrated the computer system of the U.N. Secretariat and hid unnoticed for nearly two years.
|China is suspected of hacking into 72 organizations, including the U.S government. (AP)
The longest attack, on the Olympic Committee of an unidentified Asian nation, lasted for 28 months, according to McAfee.
“We were surprised by the enormous diversity of the victim organizations and were taken aback by the audacity of the perpetrators,” Alperovitch wrote in a report released Wednesday.
“What is happening to all this data is still largely an open question. However, if even a fraction of it is used to build better competing products or beat a competitor at a key negotiation — due to having stolen the other team’s playbook — the loss represents a massive economic threat.”
He told Reuters: “Companies and government agencies are getting raped and pillaged every day. They are losing economic advantage and national secrets to unscrupulous competitors.”
Graham Cluley, a computer security expert with the security software firm Sophos, told BBC News: “Sometimes it’s not about stealing your money or publicly leaking your data. It’s about quietly stealing your information, which can have a very high political, military or financial value.”
Samani described how the hackers worked: “An email would be sent to an individual with the right level of access within the system. Attached to the message was a piece of malware which would then execute and open a channel to a remote website giving them access.
“Once they had access to an organization, they either did what we call a ‘smash-and-grab’ operation, where they would try to grab as much information before they got caught, or they sometimes embedded themselves in the network and [tried to] spread across different systems within an organization.”
Samani said McAfee won’t “make any guesses” in identifying the source of the hacking, “but China is seen by many in the industry as a prime suspect,” BBC News reported.
Jim Lewis, a cyber expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was briefed on McAfee’s discovery. He said it was very likely China was responsible for the hacking because some of the targets had information that would be of particular interest to Beijing. For instance, several Olympic Committees were hacked in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games.
“Everything points to China,” Lewis declared.
McAfee has reportedly notified all 72 of the hacking victims and the attacks are under investigation by law enforcement agencies around the world.
China has consistently denied any state involvement in cyber attacks, calling such accusations “groundless.”
Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General, when asked what would happen if the hacking could definitely be traced to China, stated: “We’ll have to cross that bridge once we find out what happened to our network.”
Alperovitch included this unsettling statement in his report: “I divide the entire set of Fortune Global 2000 firms into two categories: those that know they’ve been compromised, and those that don’t yet know.”
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