From Q1Labs

According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, a group of hackers in China broke into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s network around November 2009 and were not discovered until more than a year later.

The hackers likely used a spearphishing attack to install spyware on end-user machines.  The spyware was used to steal employee administrative credentials, which were then used to install about a half dozen back doors which communicated with computers in China every week or two.

The hackers stole sensitive Chamber data such as trade-policy documents, meeting notes, trip reports and schedules, and emails containing the names of companies and individuals in contact with the Chamber.  They even used their own search tools to locate documents containing keywords related to financial and budget information, and stole all emails from four targeted employees – who worked on Asia policy – for approximately six weeks during one portion of the attack.

And here’s an interesting twist — a thermostat at a Chamber town house on Capitol Hill was communicating with an Internet address in China, and a printer spontaneously started printing pages with Chinese characters.

The Chamber represents the interests of U.S. companies in Washington and its members include most of the nation’s largest corporations.  As a result of this incident, the organization’s COO concluded that “It’s nearly impossible to keep people out.  The best thing you can do is have something that tells you when they get in.  It’s the new normal.  I expect this to continue for the foreseeable future.  I expect to be surprised again.”

So how can next-generation SIEM and Security Intelligence help?

First, we should acknowledge that even strict adherence to some compliance mandates, such as PCI-DSS and HIPAA/HITECH, won’t usually protect intellectual property (IP) such as strategic plans, product designs and proprietary algorithms.  Of course, broader compliance frameworks such as ISO 27001/27002, and NIST 800-53 – as well as recent SEC guidance regarding cybersecurity risks and disclosure – will definitely help tighten controls and improve the overall security posture of your infrastructure by requiring centralized monitoring and other best practices, along with helping to address minimum “standards of due care” expectations of your board of directors, customers and shareholders.

Next-generation SIEM can certainly help in reducing the cost and effort of compliance – by centralizing and automating compliance reporting and efficiently addressing log retention requirements – but it also provides significant added value by helping to proactively detect attacks such as this one.

Second, the fact that the hackers were in the network for more than a year before being detected is not unusual.  According to the 2011 Data Breach Investigations Report, more than 60% of breaches remain undiscovered for  a period of months or longer (versus days or weeks).  And according to Kim Peretti, former senior counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice, “Our most formidable challenge is getting companies to detect they have been compromised.”

Why?  Because most organizations still rely on basic server and device logs which are widely dispersed across their infrastructures – combined with manual, after-the-fact log analysis – making it virtually impossible to detect any intruder alarms because the information simply gets lost in the noise.

Continuous real-time monitoring of all network and system activity – combined with real-time event correlation and automated behavior profiling – can help by rapidly identifying anomalous or out-of-policy events such as:

  • A server (or thermostat) communicating with an IP address in China.
  • An unusual Windows service starting up, such as a backdoor or spyware program.
  • A spike in network traffic and/or data server activity, such as a high volume of downloads from a SharePoint server during off-hours.
  • A high number of failed logins to critical servers, which can indicate a brute-force password attack.
  • A configuration change, such as an unauthorized port being enabled.
  • An inappropriate use of protocols and applications, such as sensitive data being exfiltrated via P2P or social media applications; in this case, detection requires application-aware (Layer 7) monitoring with flow analysis and deep examination of packet content.

More information on how organizations can leverage a unified architecture to reduce risk with continuous, real-time monitoring, can be found in this white paper, “Countering Advanced Threats.”


Graphic courtesy of the Wall Street Journal (December 21, 2011).