Skilled hackers may have used secret info to prepare attack

A special computer virus designed to affect only the Foreign Ministry's new communication network was detected in computers at about 10 Japanese diplomatic offices overseas, according to government sources.

It came to light Tuesday that computers at these offices have been infected with viruses since this summer.

Information security experts suspect that unidentified attackers created the virus to target the ministry. Creating such a virus requires detailed information about the ministry's information-processing systems, making it possible confidential information was leaked to the attackers.

The experts said a group of hackers with superior skills and knowledge likely was involved in the attacks.

According to the sources, cyber-attacks were made on computers at Japanese diplomatic offices in such countries as China, France, South Korea, the Netherlands and the United States. The same type of purpose-made virus was reportedly found at all the offices.

Analysis found the virus affects only the ministry's system and creates "backdoors" in the network, enabling the hackers to operate the infected computers and steal information.

Furthermore, all the affected diplomatic offices had changed to the new network connecting the ministry and overseas offices. The ministry is currently in the process of switching to the new system.

The ministry has two networks--one for handling official cables including confidential diplomatic information, and an open local area network that handles other communications.

Since fiscal 2009, the ministry has boosted the security of the LAN, including limiting access to the network. As of the end of last fiscal year, 65 of its 204 overseas offices had completed the steps.

The ministry suspects the attackers obtained information about the new network and created the special virus.

The "Stuxnet" virus is widely known for targeting specific computer systems and is believed to have aimed to cripple Iran's nuclear facilities. Because Stuxnet was minutely programmed based on secretly obtained information about those facilities, computer experts believe it was created in a project involving highly skilled engineers, suggesting the involvement of a nation.

Norihiko Maeda, a researcher at the anti-computer virus service firm Kaspersky Labs Japan, said: "The latest findings suggest that carefully prepared attackers may have targeted Japan's diplomatic information.

"Though it may be difficult to prevent initial infections, it's important to respond quickly to prevent damage from spreading, such as making sure problems are reported [to the proper authorities]," he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said at a press conference Wednesday morning, "Computer viruses were detected in some overseas diplomatic offices, but [the computers were] disinfected.

"The Foreign Ministry has tightened controls [on computer viruses] since September. At this stage, I can assure you no confidential information has been leaked [through the attacks]."