A group of security companies say a collaborative effort has helped counter several hacking tools used by a China-based group most known for provoking strong condemnation from Google four years ago.
The companies, which include Cisco, FireEye, F-Secure, iSIGHT Partners, Microsoft, Tenable, ThreatConnect, ThreatTrack Security, Volexity, Novetta and Symantec, said their efforts have led to a better level of protection in their products against the hacking tools used by the group. How long the effort will stymie the hackers remains to be seen.
“We’re not naïve,” said Novetta CEO Peter LaMontagne in a phone interview Tuesday. “Our view is that the threat actors that are out there are absolutely focused on staying ahead of our defensive efforts.”
Novetta, which spearheaded the effort, said a comprehensive technical report on the action, called “Operation SMN,” will be released on Oct. 28., although some details were released by Symantec in a blog post Tuesday.
The hackers, referred to as “Hidden Lynx” by Symantec, are believed to have been behind “Operation Aurora,” a famous cyberespionage campaign revealed in early 2010 that compromised as many as 20 companies.
Google said the attack stole some of its intellectual property and also appeared to target the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
Google’s comments fueled a growing diplomatic row between the U.S. and China over cybersecurity issues. Other U.S. companies followed Google in more directly blaming China for sophisticated long-term infiltration campaigns. China has strongly denied sanctioning such attacks and said it is actually a victim of U.S. intrusions.
Computer security companies have a spotty record of cooperation, as many are in direct competition with one another for customers. But in January, Microsoft called for the companies to work more closely together to combat certain types of malware families successfully used by attackers year after year.
The project was dubbed the ”Coordinated Malware Eradication” program, and its first action took aim at “Hikit,” which is a backdoor the Hidden Lynx hackers try to plant on computers. Backdoors allow for probing a compromised computer or for uploading other malware.
Hikit has been used against governments and technology, research and defense companies in countries including the U.S., Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, Symantec wrote.
The security companies shared information on the group, which has lead to “the rollout of more effective protection against Hikit and a number of other associated pieces of malware, including one previously unknown malware tool,” Symantec wrote.
The Hikit malware was used in a 2012 attack against Bit9, a Waltham, Massachusetts, company that sells a security platform designed in part to stop hackers from installing their own malicious software.
Once inside Bit9, the hackers accessed a virtual machine used to digitally sign code for Bit9, a security measure that verifies the company’s code is legitimate. The hackers then used Bit9’s digital certificate to sign 32 of their own malicious files and scripts, including Hikit.
That kind of attack is particularly dangerous. With Bit9’s digital signature, Hikit would look legitimate to other security software and not be detected as malware. Further investigation showed HiKit was used in so-called watering hole attacks, where legitimate websites are tampered with to deliver malware to visitors’ computers.
The Chinese group added more backdoors - Fexel and Gresim - to their arsenal in 2013, which were used in conjunction with Hikit. Gresim had remained unknown before the security companies began collaborating, Symantec wrote.