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McAfee Exposes Major Cyberattacks

August 3, 2011

A large number of cyber attacks, involving the infiltration of the networks of 72 organizations including the United Nations, governments and companies around the world have been uncovered by computer security experts.

The computer security company McAfee uncovered the intrusions and said it believed there was one “state actor” behind the attacks but declined to name which it might be. Security experts say the evidence points to China, according to Reuters.

The long list of victims in the five-year campaign includes the governments of the US, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Canada; the Association of South-east Asian Nations; the International Olympic Committee (IOC); the World Anti-Doping Agency; and an array of companies from defense contractors to high-tech enterprises.

Hackers broke into the computer system of the UN secretariat in Geneva in 2008 and were able to go unnoticed for nearly two years while they quietly combed through reams of secret data, according to McAfee.

“Even we were surprised by the enormous diversity of the victim organizations and were taken aback by the audacity of the perpetrators,” McAfee’s vice-president of threat research, Dmitri Alperovitch, said Tuesday in a blog post.

“What is happening to all this data … is still largely an open question. However, if even a fraction of it is used to build better competing products or beat a competitor at a key negotiation (due to having stolen the other team’s playbook), the loss represents a massive economic threat.”

The hacking campaign was discovered in March this year when McAfee researchers discovered logs of the attacks while reviewing the contents of a “command and control” server that they had discovered in 2009 as part of an investigation into security breaches at defense companies.

McAfee notified all 72 victims of the attacks, which are under investigation by law enforcement agencies around the world. He declined to name the affected companies.

Jim Lewis, a cyber expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was briefed on the discovery by McAfee and told Reuters that it was very likely China was behind the campaign because some of the targets had information that would be of particular interest to Beijing.

The systems of the IOC and several national Olympic committees were breached in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, for example. China views Taiwan as a renegade province ““ political issues between them remain contentious even as economic ties have strengthened in recent years.

“Everything points to China. It could be the Russians but there is more that points to China than Russia,” Lewis  told Reuters reporter Jim Finkle. He added that the US and Britain were capable of pulling off this kind of campaign but “we wouldn’t spy on ourselves and the Brits wouldn’t spy on us”.

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