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Report: Chinese hackers targeted big oil companies, stole data

Several oil companies were targets of hackers seeking 'proprietary' data about global oil finds, cyber security firm AcAfee reported Thursday. All evidence points to cyber spies in China, it says.

By Staff writer / February 10, 2011



Several multinational oil companies were victims of cyberespionage by Chinese hackers who downloaded sensitive data from their corporate networks, including the companies’ crown jewels – “bid data” detailing oil discoveries worldwide, reported cybersecurity company McAfee on Thursday.

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By November 2009, the hackers had launched waves of coordinated “covert cyberattacks” aimed at pilfering the computer networks of global oil, energy, and petrochemical companies, McAfee reported. The attacks may even have begun as many as four years ago – and are still continuing, McAfee's analysis revealed.

The hackers launched their attacks from several spots in China and were connected through Internet service providers in the United States and compromised servers in the Netherlands. From those platforms, the hackers worked to gain access to computers belonging to oil and gas executives in Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Greece, and the US. The first order of business was to steal passwords in order to gain access to company networks – and, after that, to proprietary information.

“The attackers targeted proprietary operations and project-financing information on oil and gas field bids and operations,” George Kurtz, chief technology officer for McAfee, wrote in his blog Wednesday. “This information is highly sensitive and can make or break multibillion dollar deals in this extremely competitive industry."

'Spear-phishing' via e-mail

Among techniques the hackers used were targeted “spear-phishing” attacks, in which the victim opens a custom-crafted e-mail designed to look as if it came from a boss or a coworker. Links in the e-mail typically connect to an infected site or open an infected attachment that installs a secret backdoor on the machine.

After gaining a foothold on oil executives’ laptops, the hackers were able to get direct access to the companies' networks – bypassing firewalls and other defenses, McAfee said. The hackers then began downloading “files of interest focused on operational oil and gas field production systems and financial documents related to field exploration and bidding,” it said.

In some instances, however, the cyberattackers also collected data from industrial control systems that can contain proprietary production data, such as pressure and temperature settings and valve openings needed to produce a product properly. That information is not only useful for competitors; it also could be used by saboteurs to create explosions or to tamper with product quality, although McAfee reported no signs of that kind of activity.

While most hackers cover their tracks by threading their way through a maze of computer servers spanning many nations, the ones in this case left a clear trail, said McAfee. China is definitely the origin of these cyberespionage attacks, it added.

“We have strong evidence suggesting that the attackers were based in China,” Mr. Kurtz wrote. “The tools, techniques, and network activities used in these attacks originate primarily in China. These tools are widely available on the Chinese Web forums and tend to be used extensively by Chinese hacker groups.”

McAfee's report did not identify the names or the number of oil companies involved. The Wall Street Journal, however, on Thursday reported that five oil companies were hit by the attacks.

Akin to the Monitor's findings

In January 2010, a Monitor investigative report found that cyberespionage attacks believed to come from China had infiltrated computer networks belonging to at least three global oil giants. Cybersecurity experts say the McAfee findings strongly echo that earlier Monitor report.

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