Eight of the world’s biggest technology service providers were hacked by Chinese cyber spies in an elaborate and years-long invasion, Reuters found. The invasion exploited weaknesses in those companies, their customers, and the Western system of technological defense.
The hacking campaign, known as “Cloud Hopper,” was the subject of a U.S. indictment in December that accused two Chinese nationals of identity theft and fraud. Prosecutors described an elaborate operation that victimized multiple Western companies but stopped short of naming them. A Reuters report at the time identified two: Hewlett Packard Enterprise and IBM.
Yet the campaign ensnared at least six more major technology firms, touching five of the world’s 10 biggest tech service providers.
Also compromised by Cloud Hopper, Reuters has found: Fujitsu, Tata Consultancy Services, NTT Data, Dimension Data, Computer Sciences Corporation and DXC Technology. HPE spun-off its services arm in a merger with Computer Sciences Corporation in 2017 to create DXC.
Waves of hacking victims emanate from those six plus HPE and IBM: their clients. Ericsson, which competes with Chinese firms in the strategically critical mobile telecoms business, is one. Others include travel reservation system Sabre, the American leader in managing plane bookings, and the largest shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy, Huntington Ingalls Industries, which builds America’s nuclear submarines at a Virginia shipyard.
“This was the theft of industrial or commercial secrets for the purpose of advancing an economy,” said former Australian National Cyber Security Adviser Alastair MacGibbon. “The lifeblood of a company.”
The corporate and government response to the attacks was undermined as service providers withheld information from hacked clients, out of concern over legal liability and bad publicity, records and interviews show. That failure, intelligence officials say, calls into question Western institutions’ ability to share information in the way needed to defend against elaborate cyber invasions. Even now, many victims may not be aware they were hit.
The campaign also highlights the security vulnerabilities inherent in cloud computing, an increasingly popular practice in which companies contract with outside vendors for remote computer services and data storage.
For years, the company’s predecessor, technology giant Hewlett Packard, didn’t even know it had been hacked. It first found malicious code stored on a company server in 2012. The company called in outside experts, who found infections dating to at least January 2010.
Hewlett Packard security staff fought back, tracking the intruders, shoring up defenses and executing a carefully planned expulsion to simultaneously knock out all of the hackers’ known footholds. But the attackers returned, beginning a cycle that continued for at least five years.
The intruders stayed a step ahead. They would grab reams of data before planned eviction efforts by HP engineers. Repeatedly, they took whole directories of credentials, a brazen act netting them the ability to impersonate hundreds of employees.
The hackers knew exactly where to retrieve the most sensitive data and littered their code with expletives and taunts. One hacking tool contained the message “FUCK ANY AV” – referencing their victims’ reliance on anti-virus software. The name of a malicious domain used in the wider campaign appeared to mock U.S. intelligence: “nsa.mefound.com”
Then things got worse, documents show.
After a 2015 tip-off from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation about infected computers communicating with an external server, HPE combined three probes it had underway into one effort called Tripleplay. Up to 122 HPE-managed systems and 102 systems designated to be spun out into the new DXC operation had been compromised, a late 2016 presentation to executives showed.
According to Western officials, the attackers were multiple Chinese government-backed hacking groups. The most feared was known as APT10 and directed by the Ministry of State Security, U.S. prosecutors say. National security experts say the Chinese intelligence service is comparable to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, capable of pursuing both electronic and human spying operations.
It’s impossible to say how many companies were breached through the service provider that originated as part of Hewlett Packard, then became Hewlett Packard Enterprise and is now known as DXC.
HP management only grudgingly allowed its own defenders the investigation access they needed and cautioned against telling Sabre everything, the former employees said. “Limiting knowledge to the customer was key,” one said. “It was incredibly frustrating. We had all these skills and capabilities to bring to bear, and we were just not allowed to do that.”
The threat also reached into the U.S. defense industry.
In early 2017, HPE analysts saw evidence that Huntington Ingalls Industries, a significant client and the largest U.S. military shipbuilder, had been penetrated by the Chinese hackers, two sources said. Computer systems owned by a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls were connecting to a foreign server controlled by APT10.
During a private briefing with HPE staff, Huntington Ingalls executives voiced concern the hackers could have accessed data from its biggest operation, the Newport News, Va., shipyard where it builds nuclear-powered submarines, said a person familiar with the discussions. It’s not clear whether any data was stolen.
Like many Cloud Hopper victims, Ericsson could not always tell what data was being targeted. Sometimes, the attackers appeared to seek out project management information, such as schedules and timeframes. Another time they went after product manuals, some of which were already publicly available.
much of Cloud Hopper’s activity has been deliberately kept from public view, often at the urging of corporate victims.
In an effort to keep information under wraps, security staff at the affected managed service providers were often barred from speaking even to other employees not specifically added to the inquiries.
In 2016, HPE’s office of general counsel for global functions issued a memo about an investigation codenamed White Wolf. “Preserving confidentiality of this project and associated activity is critical,” the memo warned, stating without elaboration that the effort “is a sensitive matter.” Outside the project, it said, “do not share any information about White Wolf, its effect on HPE, or the activities HPE is taking.”
The secrecy was not unique to HPE. Even when the government alerted technology service providers, the companies would not always pass on warnings to clients, Jeanette Manfra, a senior cybersecurity official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told Reuters.
Source: Stealing Clouds