After the revelation of the Chinese attack against the Gray Lady, other U.S. media companies have admitted to have been targeted by (probably state-sponsored) Chinese Hackers in 2012. Immediately after the NYT, even the Wall Street Journal has revealed to have been infiltrated, and similar rumors have emerged for Bloomberg and the Washington Post in what appears to be a systematic hostile campaign.

In particular the attack against the NYT has apparently confirmed the inadequacy of signature-based antivirus against targeted attacks. As the same New York Times admitted, over the course of three months, the foreign attackers installed 45 pieces of custom malware, but the antivirus in use, made by Symantec, was only able to detect one instance of malware over the entire sample.

The security firm has immediately replied to those allegations:

“Advanced attacks like the ones the New York Times described … underscore how important it is for companies, countries and consumers to make sure they are using the full capability of security solutions. The advanced capabilities in our endpoint offerings, including our unique reputation-based technology and behaviour-based blocking, specifically target sophisticated attacks. Turning on only the signature-based anti-virus components of endpoint solutions alone are not enough in a world that is changing daily from attacks and threats. We encourage customers to be very aggressive in deploying solutions that offer a combined approach to security. Anti-virus software alone is not enough.”

Said in few words: signatures alone are not enough. The sophistication of the next generation targeted attacks require advanced security capabilities such as reputation and behavioral analysis.

According to the scant information available even the Washington Post used Symantec technology to protect its assets, and even in this case it could not prevent the hostile attackers to systematically compromise computer systems.

I wonder if this double coincidence could somehow be connected to the infamous leak of Symantec antivirus source code which occurred (or better was made public) approximately one year ago (the 6th of January 2012). As a consequence of the breach (that allegedly dates back to 2006) the source code of two old products (Symantec Antivirus Corporate Edition 10.2 and Symantec Endpoint Protection 11) were leaked on the Internet. Of course the affected products have been greatly modified since then, nevertheless it is likely that any core functions have not evolved, so in theory, hostile hackers could have taken a (detailed) look at them and have consequently found ways to evade the antivirus (some claim that a similar scenario happened for the infamous RSA breach).

Of course this is just a speculation, maybe the reality is much more simple: traditional antivirus technologies are not enough to thwart sophisticated targeted attacks.

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