Officials and delegates from APEC economies were targeted ahead of last year’s Singapore meeting with malware-laden emails faked so they appeared to have been sent by Singapore government officials on the Organising Committee.
Singapore officials have said the attacks were not the first on the country. Although Singapore regularly highlights threats to national security—including Islamic terrorism—the admission that it has been the victim of cyber attacks is, according to the Straits Times, its most detailed account.
Although it’s hard to read too much into the statements made to judge who may have been behind the attacks, it’s interesting that Singapore is drawing attention to this—not least because there’s bound to be speculation about just this point. The current flood of WikiLeaks cables about this very issue is a coincidence. But the description of the attacks fits a pattern familiar to security experts:
Between September and November 2009 APEC officials, and delegates of several APEC economies were targeted with Trojan-laden emails “with the aim of infiltrating their computers and extracting privileged information.” There were at least seven waves of such attacks, focusing on members of the APEC organising committe and APEC delegates whose email addresses were published on websites or in APEC mailing lists. (APEC, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, is a forum for 21 regional economies set up in 1989. Singapore hosted meetings throughout 2009 culminating in a leaders’ meeting in Singapore from November 14-15.)
The attacks were first mentioned in a speech by Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister Of State For Law & Home Affairs, who told a seminar on Sept 28 that “Singapore has its fair share of cyber attacks.” More details were added in an internal but publicly accessible Ministry of Home Affairs magazine, the Home Team Journal, by Loh Phin Juay, head of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority and reported in the Straits Times on Saturday, December 4. (The Straits Times called the perpetrators “cyberterrorists”.)
Loh wrote in the magazine article that “between 2004 and 2005, the Singapore government saw waves of Trojan email attacks which were commonly referred to as the Trojan Riler attacks.” The attacks came in four waves over a span of two years, he said, in the form of more than 900 emails targeting officials in several ministries.
Loh Phin Juay said that the first two waves in the 2009 attacks used PowerPoint and PDF attachments to emails puportedly warning about possible terrorist attacks on the meeting. A subsequent wave included “legitimate information relevant to the APEC 2009 meetings”—in this case an invitation to an actual APEC symposium.
Some of the malicious emails “contained details of actual APEC events (date, time, venue) not known to the general public.” This suggests to me that either the first wave was successful in gaining access to some sensitive information, or, less likely, that those perpetrating the attack were already privy to it (raising the question why they didn’t use that information in the first wave.) Both officials said no significant disruption was caused by the APEC attack.
Singapore last year set up a special body, the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority (SITSA), “to safeguard Singapore against infocomm technology (IT) security threats. SITSA will be the national specialist authority overseeing operational IT security. SITSA’s mission is to secure Singapore’s IT environment, especially vis-à-vis external threats to national security such as cyber-terrorism and cyber-espionage.”
Neither official speculates about the origin of the attacks. In his speech Ho Peng Kee referred separately to Operation Aurora, a cyber attack from mid 2009 to December 2009 on dozens of Western companies including Google, which alleged the attacks began in China. Loh Phin Juay referred in his article to GhostNet, a cyber espionage network which had its command and control network based in China and which penetrated government and embassy computers in a number of countries, including some in Southeast Asia. (Singapore was not mentioned in reports of the compromised computers.)
But he writes that “to date, the perpetrators of GhostNet remain unknown,” and neither man links the Singapore attacks to either event. The Trojan Riler was, according to Symantec, first discovered on September 8, 2004; It has been associated with corporate espionage but also the GhostNet attacks.