A five-year operation targeting more than 70 global companies, governments and non-profit organisations was probably the work of an intelligence agency, according to McAfee.
The malware-powered cyber-snooping campaign – dubbed Operation Shady RAT – began in mid-2006 with a series of attacks that affected some organisations for up to 28 months. An analysis by McAfee, published on Tuesday, said that the malware had affected firms across 14 countries.
Victims included the US federal government, satellite communications companies, the Canadian government, the Vietnamese government, the Taiwanese government, the UN and more. Others affected included 13 defence contractors, three construction firms, four IT outfits (including two that specialised in information security) and five sporting organisations.
"The interest in the information held at the Asian and Western national Olympic Committees, as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency in the lead-up and immediate follow-up to the 2008 Olympics was particularly intriguing and potentially pointed a finger at a state actor behind the intrusions, because there is likely no commercial benefit to be earned from such hacks," writes Mitri Alperovitch, McAfee's VP of threat research.
Other targets of the attack include a private western organisation focused on promotion of democracy around the globe, again an unlikely target for financially-motivated cybercrooks.
McAfee's information on those attacked comes from an analysis of one specific command & control server used as part of the attack, which takes advantage of targeted phishing, poor patching practices and malware, as Alperovitch explains.
A spear-phishing email containing an exploit is sent to an individual with the right level of access at the company, and the exploit – when opened on an unpatched system – will trigger a download of the implant malware. That malware will execute and initiate a backdoor communication channel to the command & control web server and interpret the instructions encoded in the hidden comments embedded in the webpage code.
This will be quickly followed by live intruders jumping on to the infected machine and proceeding to quickly escalate privileges and move laterally within the organization to establish new persistent footholds via additional compromised machines running implant malware, as well as targeting for quick exfiltration the key data they came for.
The number of victims hit by the attack, which uses much the same tactics as the Operation Aurora attacks against Google and other hi-tech firms, only began to tail off last year, as security countermeasures became available, according to Alperovitch. McAfee, and most security firms, have long detected the RAT (Remote Access Tool) components used in the attack.
More details of McAfee's detailed analysis of the attacks can be found in a blog post here. ®