At least 150 computers used by the French government were breached after hackers used highly targeted spear-phishing emails to plant malware that monitored the machines for weeks before being discovered, according to published media reports.
The attack, which commenced late last year, allowed the hackers to monitor official mailboxes and servers of the Ministry of Economy, Finances and Industry for weeks, according to IDG News. Information accessed included documents relating to the G20 economic group, which this year is being hosted and chaired by France. A similar breach was reported three weeks ago against the Finance Department and Treasury Board of Canada, which hosted the G20 last year.
The attacks commenced in November or December with malware-laden emails that targeted specific employees at all levels within the French ministry, and which purported to come from colleagues or known correspondents, IDG said, citing a French official who spoke at a news conference on Monday. The sending of such fraudulent emails is frequently referred to as spear phishing, because they are targeted at a particular person, as opposed to phishing, which tries to hook individuals more randomly.
The emails contained malicious attachments that installed backdoors on the machines that executed the code. The infections then spread from PC to PC until at least 150 of the ministry's 170,000 computers were infected. Once inside, the attackers transferred G20 documents to servers located in China.
The French government joins a long list of sensitive bodies that have been fallen prey over the past few years to attackers who were able to monitor private communications for weeks or months at a time. In addition to Canada, Google and more than three dozen other companies were hit by attacks that bore many of the same hallmarks. Additional companies recently outed as victims of the so-called Operation Aurora attacks include Morgan Stanley, Sony, General Electric, Walt Disney, Dupont, and Johnson & Johnson, according to Bloomberg News.
Many researchers have said the attacks are connected to espionage being carried out at the direction, or with the tacit approval, of the Chinese government, but so far no conclusive proof has been offered to back those assertions. It's possible the attackers used Chinese servers to cover their tracks. ®