U.S. Hacking Victims Fell Prey to Mundane Ruses

Article excerpt

Byline: Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The victims were their own worst enemies. The hacking techniques the U.S. government says China used against American companies turned out to be mundane, tricking employees into opening email attachments or clicking on innocent-looking website links.

The scariest part might be how well the ruses worked. With a mouse click or two, employees at big-name American makers of nuclear and solar technology gave away the keys to their computer networks.

In a 31-count indictment announced Monday the Justice Department said five Chinese military officials operating under hacker aliases such as "Ugly Gorilla," "KandyGoo" and "Jack Sun" stole confidential business information, sensitive trade secrets and internal communications for competitive advantage. The U.S. identified the alleged victims as Alcoa World Alumina, Westinghouse, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, United Steelworkers Union and SolarWorld.

China denied it all Tuesday.

"The Chinese government and Chinese military as well as relevant personnel have never engaged and never participated in so-called cybertheft of trade secrets," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing. "What the United States should do now is withdraw its indictment."

That's unlikely. What the Justice Department is doing is spelling out exactly how it says China pulled it off.

The U.S. says the break-ins were more Austin Powers than James Bond. In some cases, the government says, the hackers used "spear-phishing" -- a well-known scam to trick specific companies or employees into infecting their own computers.

The hackers are said to have created a fake email account under the misspelled name of a then-Alcoa director and fooled an employee into opening an email attachment called "agenda.zip," billed as the agenda to a 2008 shareholders' meeting. It exposed the company's network. At another time, a hacker allegedly emailed company employees with a link to what appeared to be a report about industry observations, but the link instead installed malicious software that created a back door into the company's network. …