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Hackers used IE zero-day, not PDF, in China-Google attacks

McAfee blames unpatched IE bug; Microsoft to release security advisory later today

January 14, 2010 04:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Hackers exploited an unpatched vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser to break into some of the firms targeted in a widespread attack that compromised Google's and Adobe's corporate networks, McAfee said today.

According to Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research at McAfee, the unpatched vulnerability in IE was the only exploit used to hack into several of the companies attacked in December and early January. McAfee did not collaborate with all victims of the attacks -- researchers from VeriSign iDefense have put the total at 33 -- but in all its cases the evidence was the same.

"There could be other forms of attacks," Alperovitch said, "but in all we investigated, it was the same kind of attack, and the same exploit of IE, which was the only exploit we have found in all the malware we have examined."

Alperovitch said that Microsoft would release additional information about the IE vulnerability in a later security advisory. Other sources, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not officially allowed to comment, said that Microsoft would release its advisory today.

A Microsoft spokesman declined to confirm that the company would issue an advisory Thursday, saying only that "Microsoft is investigating these reports and will provide more information when it is available."

The nuts and bolts of the attacks have been of interest because of Google's announcement Tuesday that attacks last month made off with intellectual property from its corporate network, and also tried to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google said it had proof that the attacks originated in China. As a result, Google said it was reevaluating its business in the country, and might pull out of the market.

That same day, Adobe admitted that its company's computers had also been hacked, and said that the attack that hit it Jan. 2 was related to the Google attack.

Computerworld reported earlier this week that Google and Adobe, the only two companies to have stepped forward thus far to acknowledge the attacks, were hacked using malicious PDF files that exploited a zero-day vulnerability in Adobe's popular Reader software.

According to Mikko Hypponen, the chief technology officer of F-Secure, the exploited flaw was the one of eight that Adobe patched Tuesday. That bug had been public knowledge since mid-December, and had been exploited in targeted attacks -- the very kind that broke into Google, Adobe and others -- since sometime in November.

Alperovitch, however, rejected the idea that a rogue PDF was at the root of the attacks. "We have not seen, in all the organizations we've worked with on this, and there were multiple, any PDF files associated with the attack," he said.

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