Among techniques the hackers used were targeted “spear-phishing” attacks, in which the victim opens a custom-crafted e-mail designed to look as if it came from a boss or a coworker. Links in the e-mail typically connect to an infected site or open an infected attachment that installs a secret backdoor on the machine.
After gaining a foothold on oil executives’ laptops, the hackers were able to get direct access to the companies' networks – bypassing firewalls and other defenses, McAfee said. The hackers then began downloading “files of interest focused on operational oil and gas field production systems and financial documents related to field exploration and bidding,” it said.
In some instances, however, the cyberattackers also collected data from industrial control systems that can contain proprietary production data, such as pressure and temperature settings and valve openings needed to produce a product properly. That information is not only useful for competitors; it also could be used by saboteurs to create explosions or to tamper with product quality, although McAfee reported no signs of that kind of activity.
While most hackers cover their tracks by threading their way through a maze of computer servers spanning many nations, the ones in this case left a clear trail, said McAfee. China is definitely the origin of these cyberespionage attacks, it added.
“We have strong evidence suggesting that the attackers were based in China,” Mr. Kurtz wrote. “The tools, techniques, and network activities used in these attacks originate primarily in China. These tools are widely available on the Chinese Web forums and tend to be used extensively by Chinese hacker groups.”