Hackers operating from China stole sensitive information from Western oil companies, a US security firm reported on Thursday, adding to complaints about pervasive Internet crime traced to the country.
The report by McAfee did not identify the companies, but said the “coordinated, covert and targeted” attacks began in November 2009 and targeted computers of oil and gas companies in the US, Taiwan, Greece and Kazakhstan. It said the attackers stole information on operations, bidding for oil fields and financing.
“We have identified the tools, techniques and network activities used in these continuing attacks — which we have dubbed Night Dragon — as originating primarily in China,” the report said.
The report gave no indication the attacks were anything other than standard corporate espionage that plagues businesses around the world, which the US and China have both accused each other of being deeply involved in.
The fact that oil companies were targeted may speak more to the value of their inside information than any attempt to cause damage to pipelines. McAfee called the attack methods “unsophisticated,” but said the culprits were patient: They may have been inside the networks for years.
“It looked to me like the traditional hack-to-steal-valuable-stuff,” said Josh Shaul, vice president of product management at Application Security, a New York-based database security software maker that wasn’t involved in McAfee’s research.
Application Security counts -energy companies, including oil firms, among its clients.
“It all seemed to me like someone trying to get ahead in the oil industry rather than doing something more nefarious,” Shaul said.
The intruders were prolific in their purloining, snatching files including configurations for the oil companies’ control systems, but Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research for McAfee, said they didn’t appear to be trying to figure out how to blow up a pipeline or destroy equipment.
“I got a very strong sense that was not their goal,” he said. “They expressed a much stronger interest in financial information.”
McAfee said it identified an individual in Heze, Shandong Province, who provided servers that hosted an application that controlled computers at the victim companies.
The report did not identify the man, but US news reports citing McAfee gave his name as Song Zhiyue.
Contacted by phone, Song said he was a salesman for a company, Science and Technology Internet, which rents server space. He said some of his customers were hackers, but he declined to comment on the attacks cited by McAfee. Song said he has not been contacted by Chinese authorities.
“I recently heard about Chinese hackers using US servers provided by companies like ours to attack oil companies in the US. Our company alone has a great number of hackers” as customers, Song said. “I have several hundred of them among all my customers as far as I know.”
Song said hackers using his company’s services had an estimated 10,000 “meat computers” controlled remotely without the owners’ knowledge. He said “yes” when asked whether such activities might be improper, but he said Chinese authorities never have contacted him about them. He hung up the telephone when a reporter asked for other details.
Spokesmen from several US, British and Greek oil companies said they were either unaware of the hacking or that they could not comment on security matters.