Aurora gang steps up attacks, with 'seemingly unlimited' zero-day exploits

Symantec says the well-funded hackers behind the 2009 Google attacks are still very active in gathering intelligence, while an NSA official says nations are getting "reckless" with their attacks.

A National Security Agency official recently said nations were becoming “reckless” in their use of cyberattacks, just as Symantec was reporting that the gang behind the 2009 Aurora attacks on Google, which have been tied to China, are still in business with a deep bag of zero-day tricks aimed at intelligence gathering.

Debora Plunkett, head of the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate, told a university audience in New York Sept. 7 that, "we're starting to see nation-state resources and expertise employed in what we would characterize as reckless and disruptive, destructive behaviors," Reuters reported.

Even adversaries during the Cold War, who were always trying to spy on or disrupt each other, operated within boundaries, she said. "Some of today's national cyber actors don't seem to be bound by any sense of restraint," she said.

Meanwhile, Symantec issued a report saying that Aurora, the group behind those attacks, which the company has dubbed the Elderwood gang because of some of the source code they used, has consistently targeted defense-related and other industries with “seemingly an unlimited number of zero-day exploits.”

Although Symantec’s report and Plunkett’s talk were not related, they both underscore the growth in international cyber activity.

The number of recent attacks from the Elderwood gang, along with their size and number of victims, suggest that the hackers have considerable resources at their disposal, Symantec said.

“Although there are other attackers utilizing zero-day exploits (for example, the Sykipot or Nitro, or even Stuxnet), we have seen no other group use so many,” Symantec researchers Gavin O’Gorman and Geoff McDonald wrote in the report. “The number of zero-day exploits used indicates access to a high level of technical capability.”

Zero-days are pretty rare --  there were eight reported in 2011 -- but the Elderwood gang has used four in the past several months, Symantec said. “The vulnerabilities are used as needed, often within close succession of each other if exposure of the currently used vulnerability is imminent," the report said.

The zero-day vulnerabilities exploited were holes in Adobe Flash (two), Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft XML Core Services. Discovering those vulnerabilities and reverse-engineering the applications for an exploit is a big job, the researchers said.

“Victims are attacked, not for petty crime or theft, but for the wholesale gathering of intelligence and intellectual property,” the report said. “The resources required to identify and acquire useful information -- let alone analyze that information -- could only be provided by a large criminal organization, attackers supported by a nation state or a nation state itself.”

In addition to defense and defense supply-chain contractors, the gang has been targeting human-rights groups, non-governmental organizations and IT services providers, among other industries, the report said.

The Aurora (also known as Hydraq) attacks, which occurred in December 2009 and which Google reported in January 2010, targeted Google and 33 other companies, including some prominent defense contractors. Google and several security researchers said they traced the attacks to China. However, Symantec’s report doesn’t name China or even suggest where the attacks could be originating.

Attacks by the gang originally spread via spear-phishing e-mails, but they’ve since made a significant shift to “watering hole attacks,” Symantec said. The idea is to hack into sites that targeted users are likely to return to (like a grazing animal on the savannah) and inject an exploit. For example, Symantec said, people in Hong Kong interested in human rights would be likely to visit Amnesty International’s Hong Kong website.

Hackers would try to find a vulnerability in the site -- say, SQL injection -- and then install an exploit. “Any visitor susceptible to the exploit is compromised and a back door Trojan is installed onto their computer. The attacker then has complete control over the victim’s computer,” the report says. “Three of the most recent zero-day exploits were used in watering hole attacks, an indication that this approach is gaining momentum.”

NSA’s Plunkett didn’t mention anything about Aurora in her talk -- she was speaking in a different context -- but she did say that international cyberattacks are gaining momentum. "The trend exists, and we have to be prepared for it and think that it will only get worse, because I believe that it will," she said.

On the positive side, she did say she thinks Congress will pass long-foundering cybersecurity legislation in the next year.

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