At least three US oil companies were victims of highly targeted, email-borne attacks designed to siphon valuable data from their corporate networks and send it abroad, according to a published report citing unnamed people and government documents.
The attacks against Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips began with emails sent to senior executives that included links to booby-trapped websites, according to the report in The Christian Science Monitor. The breaches focused on the companies' proprietary "bid data" detailing the quantity, value, and location of petroleum discoveries worldwide. The report said at least some of the attacks appeared to originate in China, but didn't provide proof beyond the existence of servers located in that country used to store some of the stolen data.
"What these guys [corporate officials] don't realize, because nobody tells them, is that a major foreign intelligence agency has taken control of major portions of their network," a person said to be familiar with the attacks was quoted as saying. "You can't get rid of this attacker very easily. It doesn't work like a normal virus. We've never seen anything this clever, this tenacious."
In November 2008 a senior executive at Marathon Oil received an email that appeared to be a response to a message she sent to an overseas corporate colleague. There was only one problem. The senior executive had never sent the original email, which carried the subject "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act." Although the executive didn't follow a link embedded in the message, other people inside the company did, allowing attackers to install surveillance software across the company's network, according to the report.
Nearly identical fake emails were sent to key employees at ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, the paper said.
The attacks appeared to penetrate the companies' networks and target specific information. Chief among it was the bid data. Such information could be of tremendous value to state-owned energy companies because it shows where new oil reserves are located. Federal officials briefed senior oil company executives on the breaches last February, and warned that conventional defenses such as anti-virus software appeared to be ineffective against such "state-sponsored attacks," the paper reported.
The report is here. ®