Just two weeks after Google said it was the victim of an organised hacking attack, details of a similar sting that targeted three of the world’s biggest oil companies have emerged.
Documents obtained by US newspaper the Christian Science Monitor show that the computer systems of three major energy companies – ExxonMobil, Marathon and ConocoPhillips – were hit by a string of attacks in 2008 aimed at stealing valuable information.
The strikes, which used precision phishing attacks to fool executives into bypassing security procedures, focused on “bid data”, the valuable information collected by the companies on new oil deposits and potential sites for future operations.
According to the Monitor’s investigation, the three companies – which are all based in Texas – were only made aware of the extent of the attacks following an FBI investigation.
None of the companies involved in have made a public comment, but security experts have warned in the past about the growing importance of cybersecurity.
A report late last year by US defence company Northrop Grumman suggested that American systems were being targeted by the Chinese government – which has invested heavily in its ‘informationised’ army.
“First, the values of information systems and networks have never been greater,” said Northrop Grumman’s chief technology officer Robert Brammer in December. “Second, cybersecurity threats have never been greater.”
Though precise details of the Texan attacks remain unclear, they bear similar hallmarks to those used in the strike on Google and more than 30 other American companies, which is now being dubbed Operation Aurora by internet security experts.
Aurora used a vulnerability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser to access some confidential information, while the Financial Times reported earlier this week that the hackers responsible had also used instant messaging programs to pose as the friends of Google employees in order to obtain protected data such as passwords.
As a result of the attacks, which are said to have originated in China, Google has threatened to protest by uncensoring its search engine in the country – a move that has threatened to escalate relations between Beijing and Washington towards a diplomatic standoff.
The origins of the oil company hackers are not known, but the newspaper said that at least some of the information was sent to computers in China.
It is far from the first time that major companies or systems have been the victim of hacking attacks. According to reports that emerged last year, hackers have targeted a number of major computer networks belonging to governments, private companies or other important schemes.
The $300bn Joint Strike Fighter project – a collaboration between countries including the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Israel – is said to have been compromised, while the US electrical grid was also an apparent target.
News of the attacks on ExxonMobil and others also throws into relief comments made last week by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.
In a speech to oil industry executives in Houston, Ballmer scoffed at Google’s stance over the hacking attacks and suggested that information warfare was incredibly common.
“People are always trying to break into other people’s data,” he said. “There’s always somebody trying to break into Microsoft.”
Such attempted break-ins are part of the reason Barack Obama recently suggested that defending from internet attacks was “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face”.
That realisation led to the White House to appoint a new head of cybersecurity last month, while the British government is also planning to institute its own national cyber security centre to combat the growing threat of online warfare and criminal activity.