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Recently disclosed vulnerabilities in Java and Internet Explorer have been used in targeted attacks that appear to be aimed at critics of the Chinese government.
"Watering hole attacks still continue -- now spotted only on human rights sites -- another [Tibetan] one, HK, chinese, and ... wait for it ... RSF!" said Kubec via Twitter, referring to Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) -- also known as Reporters Without Borders -- which is a nongovernmental organization which campaigns for freedom of information, as well as press freedoms.
The attacks are part of a campaign that uses so-called "watering hole attacks," which refers to attackers compromising a website and using it to serve malicious code, in advance of their desired target visiting the site. The watering-hole technique has been used in numerous attacks, including exploits of Google committed by the so-called Aurora gang.
In the case of the RSF website attack, Kubec said in a blog post that an infection was first spotted Monday, "then it vanished, but it's back there, which [suggests] attackers have full access to their site," he said. "We've contacted the RSF webmaster and the code should be already removed."
[ Java security warnings raise more questions. Get the facts; read Java Security Warnings: Cut Through The Confusion. ]
According to a blog post from Kubec co-written with independent security researcher Eric Romang, the group behind the RSF watering hole attack last week also targeted "multiple high value websites, including as [an] example, major Hong Kong political parties."
The attacks attempt to exploit a recently discovered IE8 bug (CVE-2012-4792), which was patched by Microsoft this month, as well as one of the two Java vulnerabilities (CVE-2013-0422) spotted earlier this month and recently patched by Oracle with the release of Java 7 Update 11.
The recent watering hole attacks also include an exploit for a Java 6 vulnerability (CVE-2011-3544) patched by Oracle in October 2011. That vulnerability has since been used in numerous attacks, for example against Amnesty International websites in Britain and Hong Kong. The fact that attackers are including exploits for long-patched updates highlights the slow speed with which many people update their systems. "[Attackers] act as opportunists and try to take advantage from the time frame between the patch release and the patch application of some users, companies and non-governmental organizations," said Kubec.
Symantec had previously reported seeing the IE8 bug used in watering hole attacks that seemed to have been launched by the Elderwood group, which operates from China.
Kubec suggested the recent attack against the RSF website -- among other sites -- was likewise launched by China. "Such an organization is an ideal target for a watering hole campaign, as it seems right now the miscreants concentrate only on human rights/political sites -- many Tibetan, some Uygur and some political parties in Hong Kong and Taiwan which are the latest hits in this operation," he said. "In our opinion the finger could be safely pointed to China (again)."
According to a study released this week by Akamai, 33% of all online attacks appear to originate from China, followed by the United States (13%) and Russia (5%).