The e-mails arrived like poison darts from cyberspace.
Some went to the Chertoff Group, a national security consulting firm in Washington. Others targeted intelligence contractors, gas pipeline executives and industrial-control security specialists. Each note came with the personal touches of a friend or colleague.
“Attach[ed] is a quote for the Social Media training we discussed,” said one message sent on July 3 to the vice president of EnergySec, a federally funded group in Oregon that focuses on the cybersecurity of the nation’s power grid.
But like much of the digital universe, the e-mails were not what they seemed. They were cyberweapons, part of a devastating kind of attack known as “social engineering.”
Emerging details about the e-mails show how social engineering — long favored by con artists, identity thieves and spammers — has become one of the leading threats to government and corporate networks in cyberspace.
The technique involves tricking people to subvert a network’s security. It often relies on well-known scams involving e-mail, known as “spear phishing,” or phony Web pages. But such ploys now serve as the pointed tips of far more sophisticated efforts by cyberwarriors to penetrate networks and steal military and trade secrets.
The e-mails this spring and summer appear to be part of a long-running espionage campaign by a hacker group in China, according to interviews with security researchers and documents obtained by The Washington Post. Some of the e-mails, including those sent to the Chertoff Group and EnergySec, were caught by suspicious employees. Others hit home.
“Multiple natural gas pipeline sector organizations have reported either attempted or successful network intrusions related to this campaign,” officials at the Department of Homeland Security said in a confidential alert obtained by The Post.
The May 15 alert, by the department’s specialists in industrial control systems, said “the number of persons targeted appears to be tightly focused. In addition, the email messages have been convincingly crafted to appear as though they were sent from a trusted member internal to the organization.”
Social-engineering attacks revolve around an instant when a computer user decides whether to click on a link, open a document or visit a Web page. But the preparation can take weeks or longer.
Serious hackers investigate their targets online and draw on troves of personal information people share about themselves, their friends and their social networks. Facebook, Twitter and other social media have become prime sources for the hackers, specialists said.
“Everybody has their trigger,” said Bruce M. Snell, director of technical marketing at McAfee Security Systems. “A good social engineer will find that trigger.”
Once malicious software code is delivered, it burrows in and hides in a targeted network. That code, known as malware, can lurk for years in intelligence or attack schemes that are sometimes known as “advanced persistent threats.” Eventually, the code reaches back out to the hackers for instructions, often cloaking the communication through encryption or masking it to seem like innocuous Web browsing by an employee.
Over the past three years, most major cyberattacks on U.S. corporations have included social engineering, specialists said. That includes hacks of Google and security giant RSA. Researchers think that scores of attacks were designed by the same Chinese hackers who appear to be involved in the current e-mail campaign. Some U.S. officials think the hackers may have links to the Chinese military.
The Chinese are not the only ones using the technique. Cyberwarriors at the Pentagon receive social-engineering training for offensive and defensive missions, knowledgeable specialists said.
David Kennedy, a security consultant and former National Security Agency analyst, said he is amazed at the effectiveness of the techniques.
“I have done hundreds of these, and I have never been stopped,” said Kennedy, who teaches social engineering to other security specialists. “It sounds horrible, but it works every single time.”
The human factor
Social engineering works because it targets a vulnerable part of cyberspace that cannot be patched with technical fixes: human beings. People want to believe that their communication is safe.
“Because it goes at the human level, not at the technological level, we’re all vulnerable,” said Joseph Nye Jr., a distinguished service professor at Harvard University who is on the board of advisers to the Chertoff Group. Nye said he has received at least six spear-phishing e-mails purporting to be from the Chertoff Group. He said he deleted them all, but he added, “Every once in awhile, one of these will get by you.”