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."