Law firm in Green Dam suit targeted with cyberattack

The law firm representing a U.S. company involved in a legal dispute over China's Green Dam censorship software says it was targeted with a sophisticated online attack this week, similar to the one reported by Google Tuesday.

Gipson Hoffman & Pancione, a Los Angeles law firm, says employees began receiving well-crafted e-mail messages that appeared to come from other company staffers. The messages tried to get the victims to either open a malicious attachment or visit a Web site that hosted attack code. "It came from email addresses that people would recognize as internal to the firm, and the attempt was to make it seem like everyday stuff," said Elliot Gipson, an attorney with the company.

The company reported the attack to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Gipson said. Although 10 employees were targeted, none of them took the bait, he said. "We were on guard prior to filing the lawsuit that something like this would happen."

Gipson said he isn't exactly sure why he didn't fall for the malicious email. Company workers had already been warned not to click on links or open attachments that came with suspicious-looking email. "The email just didn't seem right to me," he said. It "was phrased in a way that wouldn't be in the typical way that that person would talk."

Targeted attacks such as this are in the news this week with revelations that Google, Adobe Systems and 32 other companies were compromised by similar attacks originating in China. Google has threatened to stop doing business in China, in part, because of the incident.

Gipson Hoffman & Pancione believes it was targeted because it represents parental control software-maker Cybersitter, in a US$2.2 billion copyright infringement lawsuit, filed last week in federal court in Los Angeles. Cybersitter believes that Green Dam uses about 3,000 lines of its Internet content filtering code, and has sued the Chinese government, two Chinese software developers and seven computer manufacturers who distribute the product.

Last year, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ordered that Green Dam be distributed with all computers sold in China. It has since backed off this mandate, but the software is still required in schools and Internet cafes. Ostensibly, Green Dam is porn-blocking software, but the product is controversial because it also blocks sensitive political material such as Falun Gong Web sites.

The fact that Green Dam used Cybersitter's code was first discovered last year by Alex Halderman, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. Reached Wednesday, Halderman wouldn't say whether or not he had been targeted too. That would tip his hand to attackers, he said.

"I've become a lot more paranoid in the last few days since hearing about Google," he added. "My research group takes security very seriously, but facing an adversary on the scale of a nation and it's intelligence agencies is something that we've never experienced before."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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