US Department of Health computers targeted by hackers amidst COVID-19 crisis

Health and Human ServicesA cyberattack, coupled with a disinformation campaign, targeted the computer systems of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in what officials believe was an effort to undermine America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cyberattack reportedly took place on Sunday night, when online administrators at HHS noticed an abnormal spike in requests to the department’s servers. The number of requests grew to several million within a few hours, according to Bloomberg News, which first reported the incident. A few hours later, a campaign of disinformation was launched against the HHS, along with text messages warning that martial law would be declared across the nation and a two-week curfew would be imposed by the Armed Forces.

The disinformation campaign prompted a tweet by the US National Security Council on Sunday. The tweet warned against “fake” text messages spreading unsubstantiated rumors. There was no elaboration about the content of these text messages. On Monday, the HHS acknowledged that its computer systems had come under attack the previous evening. However, it said that the hackers behind the attack had failed to compromise the integrity of the Department’s computer systems, and that no data had been stolen.

Later on Monday, the HHS said that it was still investigating what it described as “a significant increase in activity” on its computer infrastructure. But it added that its systems remained “fully operational” and that the functionality of its networks had suffered “no degradation”. An HHS spokesman said the Department had augmented its cybersecurity protections in light of the COVID-19 emergency. Consequently, it had suffered no loss of operational capacity or data as a result of the cyberattack.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that the source of the cyberattack was under investigation and refused to speculate as to the identity of the culprit or culprits. However, Bloomberg said that some US government officials suspect that the attack “may have been the work of a foreign actor”. On March 13, the US news network NBC cited experts from several cybersecurity firms who warned that spy agencies around the world were sending out coronavirus information in an attempt to “hack and spy on their targets”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 March 2020 | Research credit: M.S. | Permalink

Chinese cybersecurity firm accuses CIA of 11-year cyberespionage campaign

CIA headquartersA leading Chinese cybersecurity firm has accused the United States Central Intelligence Agency of using sophisticated malicious software to hack into computers belonging to the Chinese government and private sector for over a decade.

The accusation against the CIA comes from Qihoo 360, a prominent cybersecurity firm headquartered in Beijing. On Monday, company published a report of its investigation on its website, written in both Chinese and English. The report identifies the hackers as “the CIA Hacking Group (APT-C-39)”, and says that the group has carried out activities against “China’s critical industries” for at least 11 years.

The report claims that APT-C-39 targets included China’s energy and civilian aviation sectors, Internet service providers, scientific research universities and organizations, and various government agencies —which it does not name. The majority of the hacker group’s targets were located in Beijing, and also in China’s Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces.

According to Qihoo 360, APT-C-39 must be a “state-level hacking organization”, judging by the hacking tools that it used. These tools, such malware named by forensics experts as Grasshopper and Fluxwire, are believed to have been designed by the CIA. They were leaked in 2017 by the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks. American authorities have charged a former CIA programmer, Joshua Schulte, with leaking the malware. Schulte denies the charges.

The Qihoo 360 report also claims that the hours during which APT-C-39 hackers appear to be active correspond to the working hours of the East Coast of the United States. It also suggests that one goal behind the hacking operations against airline industry targets was to access the travel itineraries of senior figures in China’s political and industrial circles.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 March 2020 | Permalink

United Nations targeted in sophisticated cyber-espionage operation

United Nations headquartersOne of the United Nations’ most sensitive computer systems was targeted in a highly sophisticated cyber-espionage operation that appears to have been sponsored by a state, according to a leaked study. The study was leaked to the media earlier this week, and was reported by the Associated Press on Wednesday.

According to the Associated Press report, hackers used IP addresses in Romania to stage a meticulously organized infiltration of dozens of United Nations computer servers. The servers that were compromised included those used by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which collects sensitive personal data regarding human rights abuses by governments around the world. The OHCHR has regularly been the subject of verbal attacks by authoritarian governments around the world in recent years.

The identity of the hackers remains unclear, said the report. However, their degree of technical sophistication was so substantial that forensic investigators suspect that a state actor was behind the espionage operation, according to the Associated Press. The news agency relayed an email message it received from United Nations spokesman Rupert Colville, which claimed that the hackers did penetrate the OHCHR system but “did not get very far, [as] nothing confidential was compromised”.

But the above statement appears to contradict the leaked study, which suggests that the cyber-espionage operation against the United Nations resulted in a compromise of “core infrastructure components” that were “determined to be serious”. Among the accounts that were compromised by the hackers were those of some domain administrators, who have access to large segments of the United Nations’ computer networks. The Associated Press spoke to an anonymous United Nations official, who said that the attack was “sophisticated”, and that the organization’s computer systems were “reinforced” in the months following the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 January 2020 | Permalink

Massive data dump identifies users of influential far-right website

Atomwaffen DivisionA data dump of unprecedented scale includes usernames, IP addresses and even the content of thousands of private chat logs stolen from an influential neo-Nazi website that is now defunct. The data belonged to IronMarch, which was founded in 2011 by Alexander Mukhitdinov, a Russian far-right activist using the online nom-de-guerre “Slavros”. In the nearly six years of its existence, the website featured some of the most extreme and uncompromising far-right content on the World Wide Web.

The discussions that took place on IronMarch’s message boards are believed to have led to the creation of several far-right groups in Europe, Australia, and the United States. Among them is the notorious Atomwaffen Division (pictured), an American neo-Nazi group that focuses on street-fighting and is known to train its members in the use of military-grade weapons and guerilla warfare tactics. Another group that organized and recruited heavily through IronMarch was Vanguard America, one of the organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

But the website abruptly shut down its operations in late 2017. No explanation was given. Users of far-right online forums are used to experiencing such sudden changes in hosting platforms, which are due to legal challenges, intervention by law enforcement, etc. So they did what they always do in such cases: they migrated to other far-right platforms where they continued to discuss and organize. IronMach never resurfaced, so it was eventually forgotten.

Last Wednesday, however, a user calling themselves “antifa-data” uploaded what appears to be the entire metadata and chat log archive of IronMarch on the website of the Internet Archive. The content was later removed, but not before it was downloaded by thousands of Internet Archive users, among them government agencies. The data dump reportedly includes the usernames of IronMarch members, as well as the emails associated with their individual accounts. It also contains the IP addresses of IronMarch members and even the contents of private messages that they exchanged with other members.

Some investigative websites have since reported that numerous IronMarch users were associated with email accounts belonging to American universities. Others stated in private messages that they were members of the armed forces of several countries in Europe and the Americas. At least one user appears to have run for Congress in the United States. On Friday, the American website Military Times said that United States authorities were concerned that many of IronMarch’s members said they were serving in the US Armed Forces or expressed a desire to join a military branch. A spokesman for the US Marine Corps told the Military Times that there was “no place for racial hatred or extremism in the Marine Corps”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 November 2019 | Permalink

Russian government cyber spies ‘hid behind Iranian hacker group’

Computer hackingRussian hackers hijacked an Iranian cyber espionage group and used its infrastructure to launch attacks, hoping that their victims would blame Iran, according to British and American intelligence officials. The information, released on Monday, concerns a Russian cyber espionage group termed “Turla” by European cyber security experts.

Turla is believed to operate under the command of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and has been linked to at least 30 attacks on industry and government facilities since 2017. Since February of 2018, Turla is believed to have successfully carried out cyber espionage operations in 20 different countries. Most of the group’s targets are located in the Middle East, but it has also been connected to cyber espionage operations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, officials from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and America’s National Security Agency (NSA) said Turla had hijacked the attack infrastructure of an Iranian cyber espionage group. The group has been named by cyber security researchers as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 34, and is thought to carry out operations under the direction of the Iranian government.

The officials said there was no evidence that APT34 was aware that some of its operations had been taken over by Turla. Instead, Russian hackers stealthily hijacked APT34’s command-and-control systems and used its resources —including computers, servers and malicious codes— to attack targets without APT34’s knowledge. They also accessed the computer systems of APT34’s prior targets. In doing so, Turla hackers masqueraded as APT34 operatives, thus resorting to a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘fourth party collection’, according to British and American officials.

The purpose of Monday’s announcement was to raise awareness about state-sponsored computer hacking among industry and government leaders, said the officials. They also wanted to demonstrate the complexity of cyber attack attribution in today’s computer security landscape. However, “we want to send a clear message that even when cyber actors seek to mask their identity, our capabilities will ultimately identify them”, said Paul Chichester, a senior GCHQ official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 October 2019 | Permalink

Iranian engineer recruited by Holland helped CIA and Mossad deliver Stuxnet virus

AIVD HollandAn Iranian engineer who was recruited by Dutch intelligence helped the United States and Israel infect computers used in Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet cyber weapon, according to a new report. Discovered by researchers in 2010, Stuxnet is believed to have been designed with the aim of sabotaging the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The virus targeted the industrial computers —known as programmable logic controllers— that regulated mechanical and electronic hardware in Iranian nuclear installations. By compromising the software installed on these computers, Stuxnet manipulated the rotor speed of nuclear centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant. By increasing the centrifuges’ rotor speed to unmanageable levels, Stuxnet rendered many of these machines permanently inoperable.

Most observers agree that Stuxnet was a joint cyber sabotage program that was devised and executed by the United States and Israel, with crucial assistance from Germany and France. But now a new report from Yahoo News claims that the contribution of Dutch intelligence was central in the Stuxnet operation. Citing “four intelligence sources”, Yahoo News’ Kim Zetter and Huib Modderkolk said on Monday that Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) was brought into the Stuxnet operation in 2004. In November of that year, a secret meeting took place in The Hague that involved representatives from the AIVD, the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and Israel’s Mossad.

It was known that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program was crucially assisted by A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani nuclear physicist and engineer. In 1996, Khan sold the Iranians designs and hardware for uranium enrichment, which were based on blueprints he had access to while working for a Dutch company in the 1970s. By 2004, when the Dutch were consulted by the CIA and the Mossad, the AIVD had already infiltrated Khan’s supply network in Europe and elsewhere, according to Yahoo News. It also had recruited an Iranian engineer who was able to apply for work in the Iranian nuclear program as a contractor. This individual was provided with proprietary cover, said Yahoo News, which included two “dummy compan[ies] with employees, customers and records showing a history of activity”. The goal of the AIVD, CIA and Mossad was to have at least one of these companies be hired to provide services at the Natanz nuclear facility.

That is precisely what happened, according to Yahoo News. By the summer of 2007, the AIVD mole was working as a mechanic inside Natanz. The information he provided to the AIVD helped the designers of Stuxnet configure the virus in accordance with the specifications of Natanz’s industrial computers and networks. Later that year, the AIVD mole was able to install the virus on Natanz’s air-gapped computer network using a USB flash drive. It is not clear whether he was able to install the virus himself or whether he was able to infect the personal computer of a fellow engineer, who then unwittingly infected the nuclear facility’s system. The Yahoo News article quotes an intelligence source as saying that “the Dutch mole was the most important way of getting the virus into Natanz”.

It is believed that, upon discovering Stuxnet, the Iranian government arrested and probably executed a number of personnel working at Natanz. The Yahoo News article confirms that there was “loss of life over the Stuxnet program”, but does not specify whether the AIVD mole was among those who were executed. The website said it contacted the CIA and the Mossad to inquire about the role of the AIVD in the Stuxnet operation, but received no response. The AIVD declined to discuss its alleged involvement in the operation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2019 | Permalink

Cyber spies accessed thousands of European Union diplomatic cables

European Commission buildingA group of hackers, allegedly working for the Chinese military, accessed thousands of classified diplomatic cables from the European Union during a protracted cyber-espionage operation, a report has revealed. Over 100 organizations are believed to have been targeted in the multi-year cyber-espionage campaign, including the United Nations, international labor groups, as well as government ministries from dozens of countries. The operation was revealed on Tuesday by Area 1, a cyber-security company founded by former officials of the United States National Security Agency, and reported by The New York Times.

The compromised cables come primarily from the European Union’s COREU communication network, a Telex-based network that uses teleprinters to exchange text-based messages. The European Union uses the COREU network to transmit information that is classified “limited” or “restricted” between officials representing the executive governments of the European Union’s member states, members of the European Commission, foreign-ministry officials, and other approved parties. Top-secret information (“tres secret” in European Union parlance) is typically not shared on the COREU network. Consequently, the hacked cables contain mostly low-level information. That does not mean, however, that their access by at least one adversary power does not represent a serious security breach. Area 1 said that its forensic examination of the method used by the hackers reveals a set of cyber-espionage techniques that are closely associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These clues, in association with the PLA’s long history of attacking Western diplomatic targets, point to Beijing as a very likely culprit behind the attacks, according to Area 1.

The American cyber-security firm said it was able to access the compromised European Union cables and made over 1,100 of them available to The New York Times. The paper reported on Tuesday that the cables reflect increasing tension between Brussels and Washington, as European Union diplomats attempt to get a handle on the unpredictability of United States President Donald Trump. A series of diplomatic cables discusses the whether the European Union should bypass the White House and work directly with the Republican-controlled US Congress, which is viewed as more reliable and responsible. Another set of diplomatic exchanges describes the frustration of the Beijing’s leadership with Trump, which Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have described to European Union officials as “a bully [engaged in a] no-rules freestyle boxing match”.

The Times said that it notified the European Union of the breach of its diplomatic cables and was told that officials were “aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and [were] actively investigating the issue”. The paper also contacted the White House National Security Council but did not get a response.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 December 2018 | Permalink