Corporate IT workers have come to expect all sorts of Internet attacks from China in recent years, but because of the distributed nature of the Internet, it's very hard to determine the true source of a cyber attack. For several hundred dollars, criminals from any country can buy so-called bulletproof hosting in China. These servers are guaranteed not to be taken down, even if they are linked to spam or other illegal online activity.
In this case, however, Google believes the attacks really were state sponsored, said Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "They wouldn't be taking an action suggesting that they cannot operate in China ... if it was not related to the Chinese government," she said.
Google's security team eventually managed to gain access to a server that was used to control the hacked systems, and discovered that it was not the only company to be hit. In fact, 33 other companies had also been compromised, including Adobe Systems, according to several sources familiar with the situation.
On Jan. 2 Adobe learned of "a computer security incident involving a sophisticated, coordinated attack against corporate network systems managed by Adobe and other companies," the company said in a blog post published just minutes after Google went public with its account of the hacking incident. An Adobe spokeswoman declined to comment on whether or not the Google and Adobe attacks were related.
Other companies that have been hit include "Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors," Drummond said.
On Tuesday Yahoo -- another likely target -- declined to say whether it had been hit, but the company did issue a brief statement in support of Google. These "kinds of attacks are deeply disturbing," Yahoo said.
Microsoft said even less about the incident. "We have no indication that any of our mail properties have been compromised," the company said via e-mail.
"We've never seen any attacks that were on this large of a scale and were this successful against private companies," said Eli Jellenc, head of international threat intelligence with Verisign's iDefense security unit.
IDefense was called in to help some of the victim companies that Google had uncovered. According to Jellenc, the hackers sent targeted e-mail messages to victims that contained a malicious attachment containing what's known as a zero-day attack. These attacks are typically not detected by antivirus vendors because they exploit a previously unknown software bug.
"There is an attack exploiting a zero-day vulnerability in one of the major document types," Jellenc said. "They infect whichever users they can, and leverage any contact information or any access information on the victim's computer to misrepresent themselves as that victim." The goal is to "infect someone with administrative access to the systems that hold the intellectual property that they're trying to obtain," he added.
Once they have the data they move it out of the corporate network.
The attacks followed the same game plan that security experts have seen in attacks on non-governmental organizations and the defense industry, where contractors and government agencies have been hit with similar targeted spying attacks for years now. Some of Verisign's defense partners said that they'd seen some of the same IP addresses used in previous, "very similar attacks," Jellenc said.
"Whomever is doing this, this isn't their first attack," he said. "These contractors also confirmed the China origin of the attacks."