The most challenging cyberattacks these days come from China and target Western firms' trade secrets and intellectual property. But a problem for some is a business opportunity for others: It's boom time for cybersecurity firms that specialize in going after Chinese hackers.
"It's the next big thing," says Richard Stiennon, an industry analyst who specializes in information security firms.
'An Adversary Problem'
One of the top competitors in this sector is Mandiant, a company founded in 2004 by Kevin Mandia, a former Air Force officer with a background in security consulting. The company distinguished itself early by helping companies learn more about who was attacking them, as opposed to protecting the companies from the malicious software, or malware, the attackers were using.
"It's a lot more fun to fight the adversary than to guard against him," Mandia says. The adversary he and his colleagues focused on from the start was China, the source of the most costly attacks affecting his customers.
In contrast with what he calls "the protection guys" in other security firms, Mandia and his colleagues emphasized intelligence gathering. They studied actors responsible for what cybersecurity officials euphemistically called "advanced persistent threats," or APTs, a term that generally refers to cyberattacks emanating from China.
Such attacks are "advanced" because they employ especially sophisticated methods to penetrate a computer network, and they are "persistent" because the attackers have specific targets and will linger inside a network until they have found the information they are after and extracted it.
"The Russians have done that for a while, but not in the same way the Chinese have," says Richard Bejtlich, the chief security officer for Mandiant. "The Chinese are very loud and broad and aggressive."
Understanding The Enemy
Mandiant threat researchers will monitor cyber-intrusions at a company until they have identified the attackers' characteristic work patterns and what Bejtlich calls their operational "playbook." He says there are signs of an interplay between junior people and senior people in the process.
"You see them fumbling around, and they can't do whatever it is they need to do, and then there's a pause and someone else comes in," Bejtlich says. "You can tell someone else is there because they type at a different frequency. They're entering different commands, [with] no spelling mistakes, whatever. They will get that part of the playbook to work, and then it goes back to whoever the first guy was."
The Mandiant researchers have so far identified 20 distinct groups responsible for the "advanced persistent threats" affecting their clients. Mandia says if his security consultants can identify which APT group is attacking a company, they will be better able to help the company deal with the threat.
"We can [tell] a team that's going to some Fortune 500 company, 'All the evidence points to APT Group 1 or APT Group 5,' " Mandia says. "[They will] immediately know the tools they use, the IP addresses they use, the pass phrases they use when they encrypt data, and where they store their files on the machine."
The Industry Expands
The surge in attacks from China has spurred other cybersecurity firms to follow the Mandiant lead, with services and products designed to deal with targeted threats.
"There are dozens, if not hundreds, of service providers doing things similar to Mandiant," says industry analyst Stiennon, "and product companies coming out of the woodwork."
A new entrant in the field is CrowdStrike, a company co-founded by Dmitri Alperovitch, the former chief of threat research at McAfee, where he led a team that uncovered several major cyber-espionage intrusions from China.
Like the researchers at Mandiant, Alperovitch says his company will focus on adversaries, not on the malware they use. "At the end of the day, you want to know what they are after," he says.
A Shift In Thought
For Alperovitch, the key element in the APT phenomenon is the persistence of the threat.
"There's really no organization, including government agencies, that can prevent this type of attack," Alperovitch says. "So you need to shift your mode into thinking that you are always in a state of compromise, and you need to start thinking about how to hunt on the network."
This is the new cybersecurity game: hunting the cyber adversary, tracking him down wherever he goes on a computer network, and confronting him over and over.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's return now to this week's series on cybersecurity. More industrial and commercial operations are going online. That's good for efficiency. It also means enterprises are more vulnerable to cyberthieves and cyberspies. Security experts say the biggest concern is computer-snooping from China. While this is a problem for some, turns out it's a business opportunity for others. NPR's Tom Gjelten says it's boom time for firms specializing in busting Chinese hackers.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The hot new cybersecurity firms barely pay attention to cybercriminals. They're just after someone's money. It's fairly easy to fend them off. The more serious cyberintruders are the ones who want one particular thing: a new airplane design, for example. Threat researcher Dmitri Alperovitch says they'll target whoever has it, and they'll be persistent.
DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Because if they're after your specific information, if they're after the Dreamliner specs, there's only one place to get it, and that's Boeing.
GJELTEN: This is what's called a targeted threat: cyberintruders going after particular trade secrets or inside information. These intruders are very determined. They won't give up until they get exactly what they want. And they're a growing problem.
RICHARD BEJTLICH: If you think in terms of someone who's going to get into your network and stay there for a while, it's becoming more popular.
GJELTEN: Richard Bejtlich is chief security officer for a company called Mandiant. He says more often than not these targeted threats originate in China.
BEJTLICH: The Russians have done that for a while, but not in the same way that the Chinese have. They tended to be quiet. They tended to be more creative. The Chinese are very loud and broad and aggressive.
GJELTEN: And there's been such an explosion in these targeted intrusions from China, that there are now cybersecurity firms that specialize in dealing with them. Mandiant may be the leading example. It doesn't try to protect its customers from viruses or other malicious software. They're more like an intelligence firm, they want to identify the intruder and his methods.
Richard Bejtlich says after a while, you can actually figure out an enemy's distinctive techniques.
BEJTLICH: And you see them fumbling around and they can't get whatever it is they need to do to work. And then there's a pause, and then someone else - you can tell someone else is there, 'cause they type at a different frequency, they're entering different commands, no spelling mistakes, whatever. They'll get that part of the playbook to work, and then it goes back to whoever the first guy was. So there's definite signs of junior people, more experienced people.
GJELTEN: Mandiant has identified about 20 Chinese groups responsible for targeted threats in cybersecurity lingo, Advanced Persistent Threats, or APTs. Kevin Mandia, the company founder, says if Mandiant can tell a company what APT group is after it, the company can defend itself better.
KEVIN MANDIA: We can turn to a team that's going off to some Fortune 500 company and say, hey, all the evidence points to, it's APT Group 1 or APT Group 5, immediately know the tools they use, the IP addresses they use, the pass phrases they use when they encrypt data, where they store their files on the machine.
GJELTEN: Focusing in depth on the cyber-adversary - its goals, its tactics - is the Mandiant approach to cybersecurity, and business is booming.
RICHARD STIENNON: They were early and now it's the next big thing in security.
GJELTEN: Richard Stiennon is a cyberindustry analyst.
STIENNON: So there's dozens, if not hundreds, of service providers doing things similar to Mandiant and product companies coming out of the woodwork.
GJELTEN: A new entrant in this field is CrowdStrike, a company co-founded by threat researcher Dmitri Alperovitch. He says his company - like Mandiant and others in this growing field - will specialize in these advanced persistent threats, persistent being the key word. Their customers will be under constant pressure.
ALPEROVITCH: There's really no organization, including government agencies, that can prevent this type of attack. So you need to shift your mode into thinking that you're always under a persistent state of compromise and you need to start thinking about how you want to hunt on the network.
GJELTEN: That's the new cybersecurity game: hunting the adversary, tracking him down wherever he goes on a network and confronting him. One reason businesses like this are growing: the Mandiant guys say it's a lot more fun to fight the adversary head on, than try to come up with some software to protect someone from him. And it looks like there's plenty of business to go around.
Richard Bejtlich says the persistency of the new cyberthreats means no more one-off jobs.
BEJTLICH: It's actually been this case now for the whole period of the Chinese activity. The customers want us to stay engaged, to the point where we sign multi-year contracts, so the customers can get help from Mandiant over a very long period of time.
GJELTEN: A cyberwar already under way, between the Chinese hackers determined to steal and the security folks determined to hunt the hackers down.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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GREENE: Tom has been reporting all week on cybersecurity and you can check out his series at our website, NPR.org.
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GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.