Symantec: Criminals Quickly Adopt Java 0-Day Exploit

As Oracle patches the flaw in an emergency update, Symantec warns that an intellectual-property theft ring has started using the exploit to steal secrets from critical industries.

A group of intellectual-property thieves has adopted the latest exploit for Java and continues to target companies in critical industries such as chemical manufacturing and defense, Symantec officials said Aug. 30.

The attacks-by a group that the security firm calls the "Nitro gang"-hit four-dozen companies between July and September 2011, but have since continued at a slower pace. The attackers may be the same group that attempted to compromise a customer of security firm FireEye, which led to the discovery of the Java vulnerabilities, but Symantec had no evidence of the link.

The group typically focuses on a single company for about a month, breaching the firm's security and stealing sensitive information, said Liam O Murchu, manager of operations for security response at Symantec.

"It does not appear to be financially motivated; it appears to be focused on intellectual property," he said.

The discovery follows a week of revelations about the attacks on a previously unknown pair of Java flaws. FireEye detected the initial attack Aug. 24 when its technology blocked the Java exploit's use against a customer, and the company confirmed that this was an attempt to exploit a new flaw. By Aug. 27, two well-known attack tools-the Metasploit framework used by security professionals and the Blackhole exploit kits used by criminals-had incorporated the exploit into their software.

By midweek, a security group revealed that they had told Oracle about the security issue, and on Aug. 30, the company patched the flaw with an emergency update.

By adopting the Java exploit, which works against all versions of Java 7, except the most recently patched version, the Nitro gang was able to move away from sending attachments to prospective victims and, instead, send a link to a Java archive (JAR) file.

If a victim clicks on the link and has not patched their version of Java, the exploit will install a copy of the Poison Ivy remote administration tool (RAT). The attack that initially tipped off FireEye also used the Poison Ivy RAT to take control of compromised systems. On Aug. 28, FireEye discovered that dozens of servers were hosting the new exploit.

"This morning we started getting the first indication of a large-scale attack," Atif Mushtaq, a researcher with the company, stated in the post. "So far, we have observed over a dozen domains actively attacking systems with this exploit, and the count is increasing rapidly. After seeing the reliability of this attack, I have no doubt in my mind that within hours the casualties will be in the thousands."

A number of security firms, including Sophos and ESET, recommended that users disable the Java browser plug-in or remove the software from their system to head off any danger from this or future flaws. The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, the response agency for the U.S. government, listed a number of ways that users and administrators could remove or disable Java on their system.

The attacks do have links that go back to servers in China, but Symantec's O Murchu and other researchers cautioned that such evidence can easily be forged.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...