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Hackers In China Attacked The New York Times For The Last 4 Months

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 11:09 PM
Change "New York Times" to "Your Financial Institution"  and you have a fascinating inside look at a hacker attack and the efforts to fight it. 
For the last four months, Chinese hackers have persistently attacked The New York Times, infiltrating its computer systems and getting passwords for its reporters and other employees.   

After surreptitiously tracking the intruders to study their movements and help erect better defenses to block them, The Times and computer security experts have expelled the attackers and kept them from breaking back in.

The timing of the attacks coincided with the reporting for a Times investigation, published online on Oct. 25, that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings.

[...] Investigators still do not know how hackers initially broke into The Times’s systems. They suspect the hackers used a so-called spear-phishing attack, in which they send e-mails to employees that contain malicious links or attachments. All it takes is one click on the e-mail by an employee for hackers to install “remote access tools” — or RATs. Those tools can siphon off oceans of data — passwords, keystrokes, screen images, documents and, in some cases, recordings from computers’ microphones and Web cameras — and send the information back to the attackers’ Web servers.

Michael Higgins, chief security officer at The Times, said: “Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals. They send a malicious piece of code to your e-mail account and you’re opening it and letting them in.”

Once hackers get in, it can be hard to get them out. In the case of a 2011 breach at the United States Chamber of Commerce, for instance, the trade group worked closely with the F.B.I. to seal its systems, according to chamber employees. But months later, the chamber discovered that Internet-connected devices — a thermostat in one of its corporate apartments and a printer in its offices — were still communicating with computers in China.

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The sobering conclusion to the article: 
To get rid of the hackers, The Times blocked the compromised outside computers, removed every back door into its network, changed every employee password and wrapped additional security around its systems.

For now, that appears to have worked, but investigators and Times executives say they anticipate more efforts by hackers.

“This is not the end of the story,” said Mr. Bejtlich of Mandiant [the computer security expert firm hired by NYT]. “Once they take a liking to a victim, they tend to come back. It’s not like a digital crime case where the intruders steal stuff and then they’re gone. This requires an internal vigilance model.”

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