Analysis of cyber attacks on foreign journalists in China

Thanks to Tom Crampton in Hong Kong for posting this on his web site.

A while back reports came out that foreign correspondents in China were being attacked with malware.

The report by Malware Lab on the PDF attachment attack (Targeted Malware Attack on Foreign Correspondent’s based in China) points out a few interesting points:

The “Pam Bourdon” emails on Monday targeted Chinese news assistants, whose names often do not appear on news reports and who must be hired through an agency that reports to the Foreign Ministry.

Considering that the contact information of these assistants was not publicly known, but was known to China’s Foreign Ministry, an element of suspicion is raised concerning the involvement of the latter. However, there are alternative explanations for how the attackers were able to assemble the list of contacts. These attackers have been actively compromising targets since at least 2007, and likely compile lists of new targets from information acquired through previous exploits. In fact, the accuracy of the email used in this case, and the malicious attachment, suggest that the attackers leveraged information stolen from previously compromised computers.

There is no evidence that directly implicates the government of China in these attacks.

However, both the timing and targets of the attack do raise questions. With the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic if China fast approaching, it is difficult to dismiss attacks on high profile media targets such as Reuters, the Straits Times, Dow Jones, Agence France Presse, and Ansa as random events. These organizations were targeted directly, but the motivation of the attackers remains unknown. Furthermore, the use of compromised servers at the National Central University of Taiwan and the Taiwan Academic Network will no doubt add to an already tense relationship between China and Taiwan.

Tracking back the DNS shows the malware writers used a number of sites from Taiwan to Korea to California, a standard tactic of such attacks.

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Filed under China, Harassment

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