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Operation Shady RAT: A frightening web of global cyber-espionage
A strangely named hacking campaign has targeted 72 corporations and governments in 14 countries. Can these cyber snoops be stopped? 
 
A five-year-long, far-reaching web of international cyber-attacks may have tapped into valuable government secrets.
A five-year-long, far-reaching web of international cyber-attacks may have tapped into valuable government secrets.
Jana Pape/CORBIS

"When the history of 2011 is written, it may well be remembered as the Year of the Hack," writes Michael Joseph Gross in Vanity Fair, the first publication to break the news of Operation Shady RAT, an "unprecedented cyber-espionage campaign and intellectual-property bonanza." According to a new report from the cybersecurity firm McAfee, dozens of governments and private organizations were targeted by hackers in a vast campaign that spanned years and continents. Here's what you need to know:

What happened?
McAfee reported Wednesday that it had identified several international cyberattacks that took place over the past five years. The attacks targeted 72 corporations and governments in 14 countries. The high-level hacking operation collected a number of valuable government and trade secrets.

Who were the targets exactly?
The McAfee report doesn't mention many targets by name, singling out only the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. The Associated Press was reportedly also a victim. Government agencies in the U.S., Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam also fell victim, along with networks in Japan, Switzerland, Indonesia, Denmark, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Germany, and India. Forty-nine of the organizations targeted were based in the U.S.

Why the lack of specifics?
McAfee didn't name many targets as corporations didn't want to alarm their customers or shareholders.

Who is behind the attacks?
"We're not pointing fingers at anyone, but we believe it was a nation-state," says McAfee vice president Dmitri Alperovitch. And "all the signs point to China," says James A. Lewis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Who else spies on Taiwan?" And while the targets included a broad array of government and private organizations around the world, none were in China. 

What sort of data is being stolen?
"There is an unprecedented transfer of wealth in the form of trade secrets and I.P. [intellectual property], primarily from Western organizations and companies, falling off the truck and disappearing into massive electronic archives," says Alperovitch. What is unclear is what the data is being used for. One possibility is that the stolen information might be used to develop products.

Can these hackers be stopped?
According to Alperovitch, McAfee is "working closely with U.S. government agencies, a variety of them, law enforcement and others," to shut down Shady RAT. On a broader level, in May the Obama administration proposed a strategy wherein international computer-security standards would be created, with strict penalties for countries that did not abide by them.

Sources: New York Times, Vanity Fair, Washington Post

 

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