'Nitro' Cyber-Spying Campaign Stole Data From Chemical, Defense Companies

Cyber-attackers targeted chemical and defense companies over a two-month-long campaign to steal sensitive information by infecting systems with the PoisonIvy Trojan.

Symantec has identified a cyber-spying campaign to steal information from chemical and defense companies around the world.

Dubbed "Nitro" by Symantec, the campaign began in April, according to a whitepaper released by Symantec Oct. 31. Cyber-attackers originally targeted human rights organizations and the auto industry before moving on to the chemical industry in July.

At least 48 companies are believed to have been targeted across various industry verticals, including 29 companies involved in research and development of chemical compounds and companies that develop materials for military vehicles. The other 19 were in other sectors, including defense. A dozen victims were based in the United States, five were in the United Kingdom, and others were in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan. Even so, the largest percentage of affected systems was in the United States and Bangladesh.

"The purpose of the attacks appears to be industrial espionage, collecting intellectual property for competitive advantage," wrote Eric Chien and Gavin O'Gorman in the whitepaper.

The campaign relied on email with the well-known off-the-shelf Trojan called PoisonIvy attached to the message. One set of emails was sent to targeted recipients within an organization pretending to be meeting invitations from known business partners, and the other set was sent to a larger group of victims and masqueraded as a security update, according to Symantec.

Once on the system, PoisonIvy opened a backdoor; contacted a remote command and control server; and transmitted the IP address, names of all other computers in the workgroup or domain, and a dump of Windows cashed password hashes.

"By using access to additional computers through the currently logged on user or cracked passwords through dumped hashes, the attackers then began traversing the network infecting additional computers," Symantec researchers wrote.

The attackers' primary goal appears to be obtaining domain administrator credentials and gaining access to a system where intellectual property is stored, according to Symantec. The attackers' behavior has varied slightly with each compromise, but once the intellectual property is found, they copy the contents to a handful of internal systems that have been designated as a staging area. The data is then uploaded to a remote server, which was traced to a virtual private server (VPS) in the United States and owned by a "20-something male located in the Hebei region in China," according to Symantec.

The technique is similar to what attackers allegedly did during the attack on Japan's largest defense contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, in August, but Symantec declined to identify any of the affected Japanese companies.

Attackers are increasingly launching reconnaissance activities to ferret out sensitive information before extracting them from the organizations, Noa Bar-Yosef, a senior security strategist at Imperva, told eWEEK in an earlier interview.

Developed by a Chinese coder, PoisonIvy is widely available on the Internet and has its own Website. It has been implicated in recent attacks, including the campaign that compromised RSA Security and allowed thieves to steal information related to the SecurID authentication technology.

Symantec said other groups targeted some of the same chemical companies during the time period by sending malicious PDF and DOC files that exploit vulnerabilities to download Sogu, a backdoor Trojan. It is "difficult" to determine if the Nitro gang with PoisonIvy is related to the group using Sogu, but "unlikely" because the attack methods are so different, according to Symantec.