China Hackers Hit Businesses

‘Comment’ group targets oil companies, patent law firms and investment banks.

The hackers clocked in at precisely 9:23 a.m. Brussels time on July 18 last year, and set to their task. In just 14 minutes of quick keyboard work, they scooped up the e-mails of the president of the European Union Council, Herman Van Rompuy, Europe’s point man for shepherding the delicate politics of the bailout for Greece, according to a computer record of the hackers’ activity.

Over 10 days last July, the hackers returned to the council’s computers four times, accessing the internal communications of 11 of the EU’s economic, security and foreign affairs officials. The breach, unreported until now, potentially gave the intruders an unvarnished view of the financial crisis gripping Europe.

Hackers and Spies

The methods behind China’s looting of technology and data -- and most of the victims -- have remained for more than a decade in the murky world of hackers and spies, fully known in the U.S. only to a small community of investigators with classified clearances.

Group Apart

What sets the Comment group apart is the frenetic pace of its operations. The attacks documented last summer represent a fragment of the Comment group’s conquests, which stretch back at least to 2002, according to incident reports and interviews with investigators. Milpitas, California-based FireEye Inc. alone has tracked hundreds of victims in the last three years and estimates the group has hacked more than 1,000 organizations, said Alex Lanstein, a senior security researcher.

Private Investigators

The researcher who provided the computer logs asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the data, which included the name of victims. He was part of a collaborative drawn from 20 organizations that included people from private security companies, a university, internet service providers and companies that have been targeted, including a defense contractor and a pharmaceutical firm. The group included some of the top experts in the field, with experience investigating cyberspying against the U.S. government, major corporations and high profile political targets, including the Dalai Lama.

Military Link?

The location matched intelligence contained in the 2008 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks that placed the group in Shanghai and linked it to China’s military. Commercial researchers have yet to make that connection. The basis for that cable’s conclusion, which includes the U.S.’s own spying, remains classified, according to two former intelligence specialists.

Partial Control

It’s unclear how the information got to the Internet, but when the plant investigated, it found that the computer of a senior nuclear planner was at least partly under the control of the hackers, according to the report. The internal probe warned that the hackers were attempting “to identify the operations, organizations, and security of U.S. nuclear power generation facilities.”

E-Mails to Spouses

Tipped off by the researchers, the firm called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which dispatched a team of cyber investigators, the person familiar with the investigation said. Comment hackers had encrypted the data it stole, a trick designed to make it harder to determine what was taken. The FBI managed to decode it.

’Big Implications’

Richard Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said China has succeeded in integrating decision-making about foreign economic and investment policy with intelligence collection.

220 Documents

With all that data in one place, the hackers on June 29, 2011, selected 220 documents, including PDFs, spreadsheets, photos and the organization’s entire work plan for China. When they were done, the Comment group zipped up the documents into several encrypted files, making the data less noticeable as it left the network, the logs show.

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