US oil industry hit by cyberattacks: Was China involved?
MONITOR EXCLUSIVE: Breaches show how sophisticated industrial espionage is becoming. The big question: Who’s behind them?
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But, according to the source and documents obtained by the Monitor, her response was too late. The fake had already been forwarded to other people – and someone had clicked on the link it contained. Instantly, an unseen spy program started spreading stealthily across Marathon’s global computer network.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearly identical fake e-mails that appeared to come from senior executives were also sent to colleagues in key posts at ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips – all containing a request for them to analyze the Economic Stabilization Act noted on the subject line, a source familiar with the attacks says.
How successful the cyberspies ultimately were – whoever they were – isn’t publicly known.
“Marathon does not comment on security matters due to the confidential nature of such issues,” the company said in a statement to the Monitor. “Our Company recognizes the critical importance of ensuring the security of all aspects of our operations and to accomplish this we continually monitor and review the security systems and processes we have in place to protect our facilities, employees and the communities in which we operate.”
The attacks that infiltrated Marathon, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips penetrated their electronic defenses using a combination of fake e-mails and customized spyware programs to target specific data, according to multiple sources and documents.
Such customized attacks first began infiltrating corporate computer networks in low numbers around 2004, but have become far more common in the past year. An estimated $1 trillion in intellectual property was stolen worldwide through cyberspace in 2008, according to a study last year by the antivirus company McAfee.
“We’ve seen across many industries in recent months a very targeted type of attack,” says Rob Lee, a computer forensics expert and director at Mandiant, a cybersecurity company in Alexandria, Va. “These are professionals [working in teams], not people doing this at night.”
Many experts say the theft of this kind of information – about, for instance, the temperature and valve settings of chemical plant processes or the source code of a software company – can give competitors an advantage, and over time could degrade America’s global economic competitiveness.
“Identity theft is small potatoes compared to this new type of attack we’ve been seeing the past 18 months,” says Scott Borg, who heads the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit that advises government and the private sector. “This is a gigantic loss with significant economic damage.”
Yet it’s often hard to prove – or even know – if outsiders have infiltrated a network or pilfered any information. Many companies are unwilling to tell shareholders or law enforcement that they’ve been attacked.
Even more basic, many corporate executives aren’t aware of how sophisticated the new espionage software has become and cling to outdated forms of electronic defense.
“Antivirus software misses more than 20 percent of the Trojans in my testing,” says Paul Williams, a cybersecurity expert who spoke at a recent oil and gas industry conference in Houston.
One new type of intruder, for instance, is customized “zero-day” spyware – so-called because its digital signature is so new that it has not yet been catalogued by antivirus companies. “Phishing,” trying to acquire sensitive information through fraudulent e-mails or instant messages, is a common criminal technique. A more insidious variant, “spear-phishing,” customizes the fake e-mail for a company in the hope of fooling key personnel into introducing the spyware throughout a computer network.