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Defense contractor under cyberattack for three years

Most, if not all, of the intellectual property of a U.S. defense contractor whose forte includes spy satellites and drone aircraft, was apparently compromised over a three-year period by Chinese hackers.

Traces of the hackers' work was found in many of the divisions of the contractor, QinetiQ (pronounced "kinetic") and across most of their product lines, a former senior vice president at Verizon Terremark told Bloomberg News.

Bloomberg reported that QinetiQ breach may have compromised information vital to national security, including the deployment and capabilities of the U.S. combat helicopter fleet.

[See also: Mandiant report on Chinese cyberespionage used as bait in spear-phishing attacks]

QinetiQ did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Bloomberg sources, the prolonged attack on QinetiQ was conducted by a group of hackers associated with the Chinese People's Liberation Army, nicknamed the Comment Crew by security experts.

Comment Crew was blamed for 141 major cyberattacks on U.S. targets in a report released in February by Mandiant, which, along with Terremark and HBGary, were hired by QinetiQ to investigate the breach of its systems.

Chris Novak, managing principal at Verizon Terremark, said he could not comment on specific cases probed by his firm, but noted that the Comment Crew had popped up in more than a few of those cases.

"That's a group that we've been tracking through the course of our investigations for quite some time," he said in an interview. "Comment Crew comes up frequently in what we see."

Comment Crew and several other groups specialize in stealing intellectual property. "That's why they're looking at these supply chain areas," Novak said.

Supply chain attacks are a growing trend across all industries, not just defense contractors, said Torsten George, vice president for marketing for Agiliance.

"Here, instead of going directly after a government agency that placed an order for equipment, they're going through the backdoor through the supply chain," he said in an interview.

"That's very common, not only in the government space, but we also see it in the commercial space," he said.

Novak agreed. "While we don't see a lot of partner-related breaches, it is something that is trending upwards."

It's much easier to attack a supplier than to launch a frontal assault on some government agencies, he noted.

"If you're going after a heavily fortified target, the front door is going to be the most hardened area of the environment," he said, "so the perpetrators will have the most difficult time getting in that way."

"But if you can get in via a trusted third party -- someone who already has ready access to your target -- they may be a softer position," he added. "You get into them and have them essentially act as conduit into your ultimate target."

A special supply chain case are law firms, which are also becoming popular hacker targets. "Law firms are involved in all sorts of extremely sensitive matters and collecting sensitive information through legal discovery," Novak said.

"That information is sitting in the law firms or third-party repositories that they use, so they become a target -rich environment for hackers," he said.

As is common in many data breaches, QinetiQ was told its systems had been compromised by a third-party. In December 2007, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent informed the company's small security team that two of its employees were losing confidential data from their laptops.

"A majority of data breaches are being detected by third parties and not from within," George said. "That shows the challenges that organizations are dealing with."

He added that it also contributes to the long time it takes to mitigate a data breach: 283 days.

Read more about data protection in CSOonline's Data Protection section.


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