Almost a year after students ended pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong, they face an online battle against what Western security experts say are China-sponsored hackers using techniques rarely seen elsewhere.
Hackers have expanded their attacks to parking malware on popular file-sharing services including Dropbox and Google Drive (GOOGL.O) to trap victims into downloading infected files and compromising sensitive information. They also use more sophisticated tactics, honing in on specific targets through so-called ‘white lists’ that only infect certain visitors to compromised websites.
Security experts say such techniques are only used by sophisticated hackers from China and Russia, usually for surveillance and information extraction.
The level of hacking is a sign, they say, of how important China views Hong Kong, where 79 days of protests late last year brought parts of the territory, a major regional financial hub, to a standstill. The scale of the protests raised concerns in Beijing about political unrest on China’s periphery.
“We’re the most co-ordinated opposition group on Chinese soil, (and) have a reasonable assumption that Beijing is behind the hacking,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, which says it has been a victim of cyber attacks on its website and some members’ email accounts.
U.S.-based Internet security company FireEye said the attacks via Dropbox were aimed at “precisely those whose networks Beijing would seek to monitor”, and could provide China with advance warning of protests and information on pro-democracy leaders. The company said half its customers in Hong Kong and Taiwan were attacked by government and professional hackers in the first half of this year – two and a half times the global average.
When Tibetan exile groups stopped clicking on files attached to emails, to avoid falling victim to a common form of ‘spear phishing’ attack, hackers switched their malware to Google Drive, hoping victims would think these files were safer, said Citizen Lab, a Canada-based research organization which works with Tibetans and other NGOs.
“If we want to talk, we have some signal,” said Derek Lam, a member of student group Scholarism that helped organize the protests. “It’s a few words … if I say some words that are really strange it means we have to talk somewhere privately.”
Steven Adair, co-founder of U.S.-based security firm Volexity, said that code hidden on pro-democracy websites last year, including those of the Democratic Party and the Alliance for True Democracy, suggested a group he said “we strongly suspect to be Chinese… who is very well resourced.”
He said such tactics were more usually seen employed by Russian hackers, aimed at very specific targets and designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. “It’s a real evolution in targeting,” he said.
Full article: On China’s fringes, cyber spies raise their game (Reuters)