BELLEVILLE, Wis. — Drive past the dairy farms, cornfields and horse pastures here and you will eventually arrive at Cate Machine & Welding, a small-town business run by Gene and Lori Cate and their sons. For 46 years, the Cates have welded many things — fertilizer tanks, jet-fighter parts, cheese molds, even a farmer’s broken glasses.
And like many small businesses, they have a dusty old computer humming away in the back office. On this one, however, an unusual spy-versus-spy battle is playing out: The machine has been taken over by Chinese hackers.
The hackers use it to plan and stage attacks. But unbeknown to them, a Silicon Valley start-up is tracking them here, in real time, watching their every move and, in some cases, blocking their efforts.
“When they first told us, we said, ‘No way,’” Mr. Cate said one afternoon recently over pizza and cheese curds, recalling when he first learned the computer server his family used to manage its welding business had been secretly repurposed. “We were totally freaked out,” Ms. Cate said. “We had no idea we could be used as an infiltration unit for Chinese attacks.”
On a recent Thursday, the hackers’ targets appeared to be a Silicon Valley food delivery start-up, a major Manhattan law firm, one of the world’s biggest airlines, a prominent Southern university and a smattering of targets across Thailand and Malaysia. The New York Times viewed the action on the Cates’ computer on the condition that it not name the targets.
The activity had the hallmarks of Chinese hackers known as the C0d0s0 group, a collection of hackers for hire that the security industry has been tracking for years. Over the years, the group has breached banks, law firms and tech companies, and once hijacked the Forbes website to try to infect visitors’ computers with malware.
There is a murky and much hyped emerging industry in selling intelligence about attack groups like the C0d0s0 group. Until recently, companies typically adopted a defensive strategy of trying to make their networks as impermeable as possible in hopes of repelling attacks. Today, so-called threat intelligence providers sell services that promise to go on the offensive. They track hackers, and for annual fees that can climb into the seven figures, they try to spot and thwart attacks before they happen.
These companies have a mixed record of success. Still, after years of highly publicized incidents, Gartner, a market research company, expects the market for threat intelligence to reach $1 billion next year, up from $255 million in 2013.
Remarkably, many attacks rely on a tangled maze of compromised computers including those mom-and-pop shops like Cate Machine & Welding. The hackers aren’t after the Cates’ data. Rather, they have converted their server, and others like it, into launchpads for their attacks.
These servers offer the perfect cover. They aren’t terribly well protected, and rarely, if ever, do the owners discover that their computers have become conduits for spies and...
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