McAfee Labs has disclosed on their security blog that “it is working around the clock’ and ‘diving deep’  to unravel the latest attack which it has dubbed “Aurora” that hit multiple companies and was publicly disclosed by Google on Tuesday.

The latest malware exploits a previously unknown vulnerability in Microsoft Internet Explorer. The organisation says it has informed Microsoft about the issue and this prompted Microsoft to publish an advisory on Thursday afternoon.

WHY AURORA?

The company reports that the name,

“Aurora” was part of the filepath on the attacker’s machine that was included in two of the malware binaries that we have confirmed are associated with the attack. That filepath is typically inserted by code compilers to indicate where debug symbols and source code are located on the machine of the developer. We believe the name was the internal name the attacker(s) gave to this operation.

The organisation writes that they  “are working with multiple organizations that were impacted by this attack as well as the government and law enforcement”.

INTERNET EXPLORER AS THE CULPRIT

On its blog, Microsoft says, “Based upon our investigations, we have determined that Internet Explorer was one of the vectors used in targeted and sophisticated attacks against Google and possibly other corporate networks.  Today, Microsoft issued guidance to help customers mitigate a Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerability in Internet Explorer.

Google posted this on their blog, “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident–albeit a significant one–was something quite different.

SCOPE AND COVERAGE
The report continues, “First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers”.

MODE OF ATTACK

Mcafee writes that, “As with most targeted attacks, the intruders gained access to an organization by sending a tailored attack to one or a few targeted individuals. We suspect these individuals were targeted because they likely had access to valuable intellectual property. These attacks will look like they come from a trusted source, leading the target to fall for the trap and clicking a link or file. That’s when the exploitation takes place, using the vulnerability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Once the malware is downloaded and installed, it opens a back door that allows the attacker to perform reconnaissance and gain complete control over the compromised system. The attacker can now identify high value targets and start to siphon off valuable data from the company.

Our investigation has shown that Internet Explorer is vulnerable on all of Microsoft’s most recent operating system releases, including Windows 7. Still, so far the attacks we’ve seen using this vector have been focused on Internet Explorer 6. Microsoft has been working with us on this matter and we thank them for their collaboration.

While we have identified the Internet Explorer vulnerability as one of the vectors of attack in this incident, many of these targeted attacks often involve a cocktail of zero-day vulnerabilities combined with sophisticated social engineering scenarios. So there very well may be other attack vectors that are not known to us at this time”.
The report says that, contrary
to some reports findings to date have not shown a vulnerability in Adobe Reader being a factor in these attacks.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

Though google has used information garnerd from their researching the attack to improve their infrastructure, there is little they can do for the individual user. However, they offered this advise:

“In terms of individual users, we would advise people to deploy reputable anti-virus and anti-spyware programs on their computers, to install patches for their operating systems and to update their web browsers. Always be cautious when clicking on links appearing in instant messages and emails, or when asked to share personal information like passwords online”. You can read more here about our cyber-security recommendations. People wanting to learn more about these kinds of attacks can read this Report to Congress (PDF) by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (see p. 163-), as well as a related analysis (PDF) prepared for the Commission, Nart Villeneuve’s blog and this presentation on the GhostNet spying incident”

A Changing  Threat Landscape

George Kurtz the McAfee blog writer states that,”Blaster, Code Red and other high profile worms are definitely a thing of the past. The current bumper crop of malware is very sophisticated, highly targeted, and designed to infect, conceal access, siphon data or, even worse, modify data without detection.

These highly customized attacks known as “advanced persistent threats” (APT) were primarily seen by governments and the mere mention of them strikes fear in any cyberwarrior. They are in fact the equivalent of the modern drone on the battle field. With pinpoint accuracy they deliver their deadly payload and once discovered – it is too late.

Operation Aurora is changing the cyberthreat landscape once again. These attacks have demonstrated that companies of all sectors are very lucrative targets. Many are highly vulnerable to these targeted attacks that offer loot that is extremely valuable: intellectual property.

Similar to the ATM heist of 2009, Operation Aurora looks to be a coordinated attack on many high profile companies targeting their intellectual property. Like an army of mules withdrawing funds from an ATM, this malware enabled the attackers to quietly suck the crown jewels out of many companies while people were off enjoying their December holidays.  Without question this attack was perpetrated during a period of time that would minimize detection”.

According to the McAfee writer, this attack is only the tip of the iceberg.