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US oil industry hit by cyberattacks: Was China involved?

MONITOR EXCLUSIVE: Breaches show how sophisticated industrial espionage is becoming. The big question: Who’s behind them?

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Iraq's Rumaila oil field: A key target of 2008 cyberattacks on US oil and gas companies ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon was exploration 'bid data' that provides critical details about new energy discoveries.

Atef Hassan/Reuters

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At least three US oil companies were the target of a series of previously undisclosed cyberattacks that may have originated in China and that experts say highlight a new level of sophistication in the growing global war of Internet espionage.

The oil and gas industry breaches, the mere existence of which has been a closely guarded secret of oil companies and federal authorities, were focused on one of the crown jewels of the industry: valuable “bid data” detailing the quantity, value, and location of oil discoveries worldwide, sources familiar with the attacks say and documents obtained by the Monitor show.

The companies – Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips – didn’t realize the full extent of the attacks, which occurred in 2008, until the FBI alerted them that year and in early 2009. Federal officials told the companies proprietary information had been flowing out, including to computers overseas, a source familiar with the attacks says and documents show.

The data included e-mail passwords, messages, and other information tied to executives with access to proprietary exploration and discovery information, the source says.

While China’s involvement in the attacks is far from certain, at least some data was detected flowing from one oil company computer to a computer in China, a document indicates. Another oil company’s security personnel privately referred to the breaches in one of the documents as the “China virus.”

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