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Vanity Fair: Enter the Cyber-dragon

Author: Michael Joseph Gross
August 4, 2011

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Hackers have attacked America's defense establishment, as well as companies from Google to Morgan Stanley to security giant RSA, and fingers point to China as the culprit. Michael Joseph Gross gets an exclusive look at the raging cyber-war—Operation Aurora! Operation Shady rat!—and explains why Washington has been slow to fight back.

Lying there in the junk-mail folder, in the spammy mess of mortgage offers and erectile-dysfunction drug ads, an e-mail from an associate with a subject line that looked legitimate caught the man's eye. The subject line said “2011 Recruitment Plan.” It was late winter of 2011. The man clicked on the message, downloaded the attached Excel spreadsheet file, and unwittingly set in motion a chain of events allowing hackers to raid the computer networks of his employer, RSA. RSA is the security division of the high-tech company EMC. Its products protect computer networks at the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, most top defense contractors, and a majority of Fortune 500 corporations.

The parent company disclosed the breach on March 17 in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The hack gravely undermined the reputation of RSA's popular SecurID security service. As spring gave way to summer, bloggers and computer-security experts found evidence that the attack on RSA had come from China. They also linked the RSA attack to the penetration of computer networks at some of RSA's most powerful defense-contractor clients—among them, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and L-3 Communications. Few details of these episodes have been made public.

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