Chinese hackers target UK gov’t

Chinese hackers launched a major attack on the U.K. Parliamentearlier this month, the government’s email filtering companyMessageLabs Ltd. has confirmed.

The attack, which occurred on Jan. 2, attempted to exploit theWindows Meta File (WMF) vulnerability to hijack the PCs of morethan 70 named individuals, including researchers, secretaries andmembers of parliament (MPs) themselves.

Emails were sent to staff, with an attachment that contained theWMF-exploiting Setabortproc Trojan. Anyone opening this attachmentwould have enabled attackers to browse files, and possibly installa key-logging program to attempt the theft of passwords. None ofthe emails got through to the intended targets, MessageLabs said,but the U.K. authorities were alerted.

The WMF flaw was first made public in November and only patchedby Microsoft on Jan. 5. Given that the first exploit was reportedon Dec. 29, this offered the attackers a “zero day” window in whichto launch the Trojan assault.

MessageLabs was reported by The Guardian newspaper — whichbroke the story — as saying the source of the emails had beentraced to servers in China’s Guangdong Province, hence thesuspicion that the latest attack was part of a more generalcampaign of electronic subversion.

This is not the first time the U.K. government has come underTrojan attack from China. Last summer, the National InfrastructureSecurity Co-ordination Centre (NISCC) reported that U.K. governmentdepartments had been hit by a wave of Trojans originating inChina.

At the time, the organization was more circumspect inattributing blame, however, describing the source in general termsas “often linked to the Far East”. There appear to be no suchsensitivities this time around.

The use of targeted Trojans to carry out espionage was firstreported by Techworld last May, when Israeli authorities uncovereda massive electronic spying operation by a large number of thecountry’s companies to steal files from their business rivals. Onthat occasion, the information theft had succeeded on a scaleinvolving tens of thousands of documents.

It is hard to say who looks worst from the latest news.Microsoft Corp. will be severely embarrassed that a major customerwas attacked using a flaw the company had warned of but not managedto patch. Likewise, the fact the attack is being openly attributedto China must be uncomfortable for the authorities there, who knowthey are assumed to approve any sophisticated use of the Internetin the country.