Corporate Espionage: Hacking A Company Through A Chinese Restaurant Takeout Menu

Photo Credit: country_boy_shane via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: country_boy_shane via Compfight cc

Corporate espionage (industrial espionage) is a favorite topic of mine. I have written and presented on the subject quite a bit and, while I am never sure how my readers react when I write about this, I do carefully watch the look on my audience members’ faces when I first mention the issue. The story their eyes tell is interesting.

The story of “why should I care about this?”

At first they usually have a glazed over look with no emotion or reaction — as if they are thinking “this is just another lawyer using fancy lawyer words but whatever he is talking about, it doesn’t apply to anything that I do” and they politely sit there feigning paying attention.

And then, I tell them about the cases where Chinese state-sponsored groups had “insiders” planted in companies like Motorola or DuPont to steal their proprietary trade secrets. Their reaction does not change — as if they are thinking “yeah, ok, whatever, my company is not Motorola or DuPont or anything like it — we are a small shop and nobody cares that much about what we have.”

And then, trying to get their attention with something they have heard about, I mention Target and the massive and expensive Target breach. Their reaction does not change — as if they are thinking “dude, why are you telling me this? My company is nothing like Target — we could barely even be a supplier to Target, why would anyone care about us?”

And then, I ask them if they have ever heard of Fazio Mechanical Services — knowing they have no idea of who that is.

Blank stares.

So I ask them to raise their hands if they’ve ever heard of Fazio Mechanical Services — and usually no one raises their hands but at least now they are listening …

So I go on to explain that

  • Fazio Mechanical Services is (or should I say was) a vendor to Target and that it was a breach of Fazio’s computer system through an email spear phishing attack that ultimately allowed the hackers to breach the Target system;
  • While no one may have cared about getting Fazio’s information, Fazio’s system was very valuable to the hackers because it provided an intrusion point into the Target system — which made attacking Fazio very valuable, strategically, to the hackers;
  • Hackers are smart and very strategic and now that they have seen a great example of how effective using indirect methods, such as third party vendors, to attack their primary target has been and they will likely do it again;
  • Even if they do not believe their company is a high value target to hackers, if one of their suppliers, vendors, or other business associates may be, it could be their system that is used to become that intrusion point to reach the high value target, and
  • If that were to happen, their business would likely be the next Fazio and they would probably be looking for new employment.

What does this have to do with hacking through a Chinese Restaurant Takeout Menu (website)?

This usually brings the abstract notion of “corporate espionage” to reality for them. I was reminded of this when I read a recent article in the New York Times titled Hackers Lurking in Vents and Soda Machines that provides a great explanation of how hackers use this indirect method of attack on their primary targets. Here are a few poignant quotes but you should read the whole article:

Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business’s vast computer network.

*   *   *

Hackers in the recent Target payment card breach gained access to the retailer’s records through its heating and cooling system. In other cases, hackers have used printers, thermostats and videoconferencing equipment.

Companies have always needed to be diligent in keeping ahead of hackers — email and leaky employee devices are an old problem — but the situation has grown increasingly complex and urgent as countless third parties are granted remote access to corporate systems. This access comes through software controlling all kinds of services a company needs: heating, ventilation and air-conditioning; billing, expense and human-resources management systems; graphics and data analytics functions; health insurance providers; and even vending machines.

Full Article:

This is a serious problem — even your company needs to pay attention to it, even if no one in your company likes Chinese takeout.


About the author

Shawn Tuma is a lawyer who is experienced in advising clients on complex digital information law and intellectual property issues. These issues include things such as trade secrets litigation and misappropriation of trade secrets (under common law and the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act), unfair competition, and cyber crimes such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; helping companies with data security issues from assessing their data security strengths and vulnerabilities, helping them implement policies and procedures for better securing their data, preparing data breach incident response plans, leading them through responses to a data breach, and litigating disputes that have arisen from data breaches. Shawn is a partner at BrittonTuma, a boutique business law firm with offices near the border of Frisco and Plano, Texas which is located minutes from the District Courts of Collin County, Texas and the Plano Court of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Texas. He represents clients in lawsuits across the Dallas / Fort Worth Metroplex including state and federal courts in Collin County, Denton County, Dallas County, and Tarrant County, which are all courts in which he regularly handles cases (as well as throughout the nation pro hac vice). Tuma regularly serves as a consultant to other lawyers on issues within his area of expertise and also serves as local counsel for attorneys with cases in the District Courts of Collin County, Texas, the United States District Court, Eastern District of Texas, and the United States District Court, Northern District of Texas.

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