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"China’s actually backed off quite a bit on intellectual property theft, but when it comes to military trade secrets, military preparedness, military readiness, satellite communications, anything that involves the US’s ability to keep a cyber or military edge, China has been very heavily focused on those targets," says David Kennedy, CEO of the threat tracking firm Binary Defense Systems, who formerly worked at the NSA and with the Marine Corps' signal intelligence unit. "And the US does the same thing, by the way."
The researchers found evidence of intrusions at some southeast Asian telecom firms, a US geospatial imagery company, a couple of private satellite companies including one from the US, and a US defense contractor. The breaches were all deliberate and targeted, and in the case of the satellite firms the hackers moved all the way through to reach the control systems of actual orbiting satellites, where they could have impacted a satellite's trajectory or disrupted data flow.
"It is scary," says Jon DiMaggio, a senior threat intelligence analyst at Symantec who leads the research into Thrip.
"We looked at which systems they were interested in, where they spent the most time, and on the satellites it was command and control. And then they were also on the operational side for both the geospatial imagery and the telecom attacks."
"Hacking can be used as a sign of force in a lot of cases to say 'hey, we’re not happy and we’re going to make you feel some pain,'" Kennedy notes. "They'll use that as a first step instead of having to send fighter jets or something."
"All of these pieces fit together," Symantec's DiMaggio says of Thrip. "It’s not targets of opportunity; it’s definitely a planned operation."