RSA chief says two groups for SecurID breach

RSA's president says 'we had our trial by fire,' blaming two groups connected with a nation-state

Six weeks after EMC's RSA security division saw its SecurID system hit by hackers, RSA president Tom Heiser met with the CIO of a large global medical device company.

The CIO wasn't happy. SecurID, an authentication system used by 40 million people in at least 30,000 organizations worldwide to securely access IT systems, had been compromised. RSA had posted a vague letter on its website on March 17, shortly after the intrusion, but details of the attack were scarce.

"The CIO was very upset," Heiser said. "It wasn't a pleasant conversation, I can assure you that."

The company was one of hundreds that RSA directly reached out to following the attack, which prompted questions about how safe it was to still use SecurID. Many corporate users have a SecurID device, which displays a temporary one-time passcode that allows them access to an IT system.

On Tuesday at RSA's security conference in London, Heiser revealed more details than have so far been known about of the attack, which RSA insists did not undermine the integrity of the entire system.

RSA, which has worked with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.K. law enforcement and other agencies, believes that two groups were responsible for the attack. EMC Executive Chairman Art Coviello declined to identify the groups, but said that due to the sophistication of the intrusion "we can only conclude it was a nation-state sponsored attack."

Heiser said both groups had been known to authorities before, although they were not known to work together.

"What does this tell us?" Heiser asked. "Our adversary was determined, persistent and very well coordinated. They knew what to look for and where to go."

RSA spotted the attack as it was underway using technology from NetWitness, a company it acquired in April, Heiser said. It is now believed that hackers gained access to RSA's systems by sending certain employees in EMC's human resources department an Excel spreadsheet that was rigged to exploit an Adobe Flash vulnerability, although RSA has not confirmed this.

Additionally, the hackers had knowledge about RSA's internal naming conventions used for hosts on its network as well as Active Directory -- a Microsoft product used for managing authentication of users on corporate networks -- which made their movements inside the system appear to be more legitimate.

"User names could match workstation names, which could make them a little more difficult to detect if you are not paying attention," said Eddie Schwartz, RSA's chief security officer.

Heiser said the attacks were sophisticated: they used advanced techniques to connect to RSA's systems and used different malware, some of which was compiled just hours before an attack. The information stolen was compressed and encrypted before it was exfiltrated, making it more difficult to identify.

RSA went into lock-down mode, giving employees free food round-the-clock for a month while they investigated. The two hacker groups stole specific information about SecurID, but RSA has declined to explain what was stolen. Coviello said on Tuesday that the "piece of information was important" but it was only one piece of information.

But RSA's follow-up with its customers was slow, causing widespread concern that SecurID was broken. RSA has offered to replace SecurID tokens for customers, although Coviello said that a relatively small number of customers requested that.

The motive for the attack against RSA was clearly to gain access to U.S. defense-related technology, Heiser said. RSA reached out to about 500 of its top customers while also using its partner network to contact others. Nonetheless, many companies felt left out of the loop, wondering if their systems were vulnerable.

"We had our trial by fire," Heiser said. "Many stakeholders felt we could have done more and we should have done more sooner, and to those customers we inconvenienced, we truly apologize."

Heiser said media reports have not always been accurate. To date, there has been only one attack that tried to use the SecurID information taken from RSA. The company attacked -- which Heiser did not identify -- was in the defense industry, but the attack was ultimately unsuccessful. The RSA breach is believed to have threatened companies including Lockheed Martin, L-3 and Northrop Grumman.

RSA withheld more detailed information because it didn't want to give the attackers an idea of what RSA knew about them, Heiser said. There was also fear that another group might try to mount a quick attack.

"They were stealthy but they did leave some information behind," Heiser said.

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