Japan's critical infrastructure under 'escalating' cyber attack, says report

Operation Dust Storm has migrated to exclusively seek out organizations involved in Japanese critical infrastructure and resources, says security firm.

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Image: Cylance

The research arm of security company Cylance, SPEAR, has released a report entitled Operation Dust Storm that details cyber attacks, starting in 2010 and spanning multiple years and vectors, against major industries spread across Japan, South Korea, the United States, Europe, and several other Southeast Asian countries.

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The report includes SPEAR's most recent research, which suggests that the as-yet-unidentified attackers have shifted their focus to "specifically and exclusively target Japanese companies or Japanese subdivisions of larger foreign organisations".

Attribution in cyber attacks is complex, thanks to the ease with which hackers can lay false trails. However, in a briefing, Cylance's chief marketing officer Greg Fitzgerald noted that the attacks are "significantly financed, significantly resourced in terms of personnel and skillset, with a sustained presence, with the sole intention to be long-term espionage of these organisations".

Choosing his words carefully, Fitzgerald said: "It's probably a nation state 'in the region'... and two particular countries, China and North Korea, both have an enormous amount of power, resources and skill in the cybersecurity arena. We, Cylance, do not have any indication as to either of those countries, and our position is that attribution, or the concept of blaming a country, is a very dangerous activity because it can be spoofed -- it can be made to look like a country when it's somebody else."

Cylance has notified the Japanese arm of CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team), which is participating in the ongoing investigation, of the attack, said Fitzgerald.

"The attack that is happening is a current attack, in progress, that has sustained compromise of a variety of Japanese organisations -- in particular they include electric utility companies, oil companies, natural gas companies, transportation organisations, construction, and even some finance organisations," said Fitzgerald.

Other specific findings of Operation Dust Storm include:

  • Long-term Purpose: After evaluating the malware at the first stages of attack on the hacked networks and systems, the SPEAR team found evidence showing that the prime motives are long-term data exfiltration and theft.
  • Continuous, Undocumented Threats: Last year SPEAR discovered two more waves of attacks that started in July 2015 and October 2015. One of the primary targets was a Japanese subsidiary of a South Korean electric utility.
  • Wide Range of Attack Types and Vectors: Attacks have employed spear phishing, waterholes, unique backdoors, and unique zero-day variants, among others, to breach corporate networks and Android-based mobile devices.
  • Targeted Corporate Attacks: The campaign has made use of malware that is customized for particular target organizations; one 2015 attack involved the use of an S-Type backdoor variant designed specifically to compromise the investment arm of a major Japanese automaker.

So far, the breaches do not appear to have graduated to actual sabotage. "From what we can tell, the compromise has only indicated the ability to be present long-term and undetected -- we cannot tell if they have done any damage to the organisations today," said Fitzgerald. "What we do know is that the attack methods used, which gain access to computers and their networks, would enable them to cause damage or steal data should they desire."

The full Operation Dust Storm report can be downloaded here, and includes more detail on the types of attacks, targets, and a complete timeline of attacks between 2010 and 2015.

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