Spear phishers who targeted the personal Gmail accounts of senior government officials painstakingly monitored incoming and outgoing email for almost a year, a researcher who helped uncover the campaign said.
In some cases, the attackers sent the victims emails designed to originate from friends or colleagues in hopes of getting responses that detailed the targets' schedules, contacts, and job responsibilities, Mila Parkour, a Washington, DC-based system administrator who does security research on the side, told The Register. The attackers also employed web-based scripts that caused earlier versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to divulge detailed information about the software used by the compromised account holder.
The ultimate goal, Parkour speculated, was to assemble an arsenal of personal information that could be used in future social-engineering attacks against the targets, who also included undisclosed Chinese political activists, military personnel, and journalists.
"The victims were selected based on their work positions, what they do professionally," Parkour said during an online chat. "Having this information would mean better planned malware laden spear phishing."
On Wednesday, Google said it disrupted the phishing campaign and credited Parkour for help in uncovering the elaborate scheme. But based on Parkour's account, it's safe to say that the disruption came only after personally identifiable information from some victims had been secretly harvested for as long as 9 months.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the FBI is investigating Google's claims that China was the origin of the secret attacks, The New York Times reported. She described the charges as “very serious” and said that the Obama administration was disturbed by the claims.
The federal government has no reason to believe that any official US government email accounts were accessed, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council has said.
Parkour said she first learned of the campaign in mid February, when she was asked to examine the PC and Gmail account of one of the victims. By following the trail of messages that had been sent and received, it soon became clear the account had been compromised since at least May 2010, and possibly earlier. She posted some of the fraudulent emails to her personal blog in an attempt to warn others.
Among other things, the attackers took pains to make sure they never lost control of the compromised accounts. Even after they had successfully phished the required password a first time, the attackers sometimes sent phishing emails to the same Gmail account a second or third time, in the event the user had subsequently changed the log-in credentials.
Google said that hundreds of Gmail users were affected and that the attack appeared to originate in Jinan, China. The company didn't offer any evidence to support that latter claim. Parkour said that the IP addresses used by the attackers were based in China and that the script used to harvest information about the victims' PCs -- which had been hosted on the phishing sites -- had long circulated on Chinese hacker forums. But she went on to say those details alone were not enough for her to conclude Chinese hackers were behind the operation.
"In my case I did not have enough data to" determine the attackers' location, she said. "No reputable researcher (would) start pointing fingers at a country without (an) overwhelming number of indicators. I think Google is reputable and I can only assume they had more than one indicator."
A Google spokesman declined to provide any details used conclude the attack appears to have originated in China.
Chinese officials have angrily denounced Google's claims and reminded the world of some of Google's own alleged misdeeds and pointed out that China, too, is sometimes a victim of espionage-motivated hacking.
Parkour praised Google for disrupting the campaign, but she also said for many victims, the help may have come too late.
"I think they disrupted that nest and that (phishing) group," she said. "But maybe some new ones were staged so for them the help came on time. For others it was year late but better late than never." ®