An often-overlooked dimension of cyber espionage is the targeting of civil society actors. NGOs, exile organizations, political movements, and other public interest coalitions have for many years encountered serious and persistent cyber assaults. Such threats — politically motivated and often with strong links to authoritarian regimes — include website defacements, denial-of-service attacks, targeted malware attacks, and cyber espionage. For every Fortune 500 company that’s breached, for every blueprint or confidential trade secret stolen, it’s a safe bet that at least one NGO or activist has been compromised in a similar fashion, with highly sensitive information such as networks of contacts exfiltrated. Yet civil society entities typically lack the resources of large industry players to defend against or mitigate such threats; you won’t see them hiring information security companies like Mandiant to conduct expensive investigations. Nor will you likely see Mandiant paying much attention to their concerns, either: if antivirus companies do encounter attacks related to civil society groups, they may simply discard that information as there is no revenue in it.
I have posted before about the Tibetan attacks, because they offer good insights into this issue in general. But it’s not just the Tibetan activists and other outspoken critics of the Chinese regime that are targeted by this “GhostNet”. I work on Taiwan/China issues in Washington, D.C. Pretty much everyone in that community – be it academics, think tankers, NGO employees, and government officials – are consistently targeted by the kind of “social malware” attacks that are detailed in the two reports. These attacks are very sophisticated, making them really hard to spot, and they show intimate knowledge of what’s going on in the community. Let me give you two recent examples:
On March 26, the Pentagon released their annual report on the Chinese military. On March 27, I received an email ostensibly from one of the people responsible for Taiwan issues at the Pentagon. The email basically said “Hey, here is the expanded version of the report from yesterday, with some additional commentary on Taiwan. I thought you would find it useful”. Attached was a PDF named “China_Military_Power_Report_2009.pdf”, exactly like the official document released by the Pentagon. I work on Taiwan defense issues, so this would be very interesting to me were it real. However, I correspond with this person on a regular basis, and he usually signs his emails to me with his nickname. This email didn’t, which made me suspicious. A Virustotal scan confirmed that the attachment contained malicious software (only detected by 4/38 products, though) and a quick phone call confirmed that the person hadn’t sent an email like that.
In another recent attack, it was the name of the head of my organization that was used to try to trick recipients into opening malicious attachments. He had just returned from a visit to Taiwan, a trip that had been reported on in the Taiwan press. About a week after returning, he received an inquiry from a prominent researcher at a D.C. think tank, asking if he had sent the researcher an email with a trip report from his visit. He had not in fact sent such an email, although it wouldn’t have been unusual for him to do so. I spoke to the IT manager at the think tank, who confirmed that the researcher was indeed tricked into opening the attachment, and that it did contain malware.
And this was just in the last three weeks. I could go on for pages describing various things we have seen over the past two/three years (two more here), but you get the gist. For small NGOs like mine, protecting against infiltration, monitoring our systems for intrusions, and educating our staff to recognize potential hazards has become a huge drain on our already limited resources. The frustrating thing is that there is pretty much nothing we can do about it, except to remain diligent. But at least I’m glad that the issue is continuing to get coverage in the mainstream press.