Showing what can happen when companies don't periodically review network logs, a software developer working for a large U.S. critical infrastructure company hired a Chinese firm to do his job so he could spend time surfing Reddit and watching cat videos.
Details of the 2012 incident, investigated by Verizon's security services group, was recounted this week in a blog post by Verizon security researcher Andrew Valentine.
According to Valentine, Verizon was asked by the infrastructure company to investigate some strange activity in VPN logs for a network that was set up to let remote workers securely log into corporate networks.
Last May, the unidentified company's IT security department started monitoring logs generated at their VPN concentrator and discovered an open and active VPN connection originating from Shenyang, China.
"This discovery greatly unnerved security personnel," Valentine wrote. "They're a U.S. critical infrastructure company, and it was an unauthorized VPN connection from China. The implications were severe and could not be overstated."
The company had created a two-factor authentication process for VPN connections.
Remote workers who wanted to access the company's network had to use a rotating token RSA key fob in addition to a username and password to log in. "If this security mechanism had been negotiated by an attacker, again, the implications were alarming," Valentine noted.
Perhaps most puzzling of all was the fact that a software developer's login credentials were being used to login from China while he was at his desk. "VPN logs showed him logged in from China, yet the employee [was] right there, sitting at his desk, staring into his monitor," the post said.
Security officials at the company theorized that its systems had been compromised by attackers that somehow managed to route traffic from a trusted internal connection to China and back, Valentine said.
The security team was convinced that malware was being used to initiate VPN connections from the desktop system of the developer, called "Bob" in the blog post, via an external proxy and to route that VPN traffic to China and back again to the company's VPN concentrator.
Vaentine described that theory as "convoluted," and noted that "like most convoluted theories, [it was] an incorrect one."
Verizon security researchers immediately found that VPN connections from Shenyang had been occurring almost daily for some six month, and sometimes spanned an entire work day.
Investigators then turned their attention to the computer of the developer, who is described as well versed in multiple languages including C, C++, Ruby, php and Java.
The developer, said to be in his mid-40s, was a long-time employee, a family man, inoffensive and quiet. "Someone you wouldn't look at twice in an elevator," Valentine noted in his blog.
Investigators probed the developer's computer for malware and other clues, but instead turned up hundreds of pdf invoices from a Chinese consulting firm.
From, there, investigators quickly pieced together what happened.
"As it turns out, Bob had simply outsourced his own job to a Chinese consulting firm. Bob spent less that one fifth of his six-figure salary for a Chinese firm to do his job for him," Valentine said.
He had FedExd his RSA token to the Chinese firm so that the company could log in and work using his credentials. Meanwhile "Bob" was typically in his office at the company from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. watching cat videos, reading stories on Reddit and spending time on eBay, Facebook and LinkedIn, the blog post said.
At 4:30 p.m. most days, he would send an end of day update to his managers.
"Evidence even suggested he had the same scam going across multiple companies in the area. All told, it looked like he earned several hundred thousand dollars a year, and only had to pay the Chinese consulting firm about fifty grand annually," the blog post said.
Bob's superior's had rated his work as excellent quarter after quarter.
"His code was clean, well written, and submitted in a timely fashion. Quarter after quarter, his performance review noted him as the best developer in the building," Valentine wrote in his blog.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected].
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