Czech spy agency says it neutralized Hezbollah cyberespionage network

Czech Security Information ServiceOfficials in the Czech Republic have announced that the country’s spy agency headed an operation in several countries, aimed at neutralizing a cyberespionage network operated by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Early last week, the Security Information Service (BIS), the primary domestic national intelligence agency of the Czech Republic, issued a short statement saying that it “played a big part in helping to identify and disconnect Hezbollah servers in the Czech Republic, other EU member states and the US”. But it did not elaborate. On Tuesday, however, ZDNet’s Zero Day security blog published more information from the Czechs about the BIS operation.

According to the BIS, its cyber security force discovered a number of servers located on Czech soil, which were “almost certainly” used by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that controls large swathes of territory in Lebanon. The servers were allegedly used in a wide-range cyberespionage operation that began in 2017 by a group of Hezbollah hackers based in Lebanon. It was there, said the BIS, where the command-and-control facilities of the operation were located. The servers located on Czech soil were used to download phone apps that contained malicious software. The hackers targeted individual phone users located mainly in the Middle East, according to the BIS, but other targets were in eastern and central Europe. It is believed that the majority of targets were Israeli citizens. Invariably, targeted individuals were approached online, mostly through fake Facebook profiles. Most of the targets were men, and the fake Facebook profiles featured pictures of attractive young women. After initial messages were exchanged via Facebook, the targets were convinced to download phone applications that would allow them to continue communicating with the ‘women’. These applications would install spyware on their phones, thus allowing Hezbollah hackers to capture the content of messages and calls made on the phones. The latter could also be used as eavesdropping devices.

According to BIS Director Michal Koudelka, the spy agency “played a significant role in identifying and uncovering the hackers’ system. We identified the victims and traced the attack to its source facilities. Hacker servers have been shut down”, he said. Koudelka added that some of the servers used by Hezbollah were located in other European Union countries and in the United States. These were shut down following a joint cyber operation by BIS and “partners”, said Koudelka, though he did not identify them.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 October 2018 | Permalink

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Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

Iran spied on ISIS supporters through fake phone wallpaper app, say researchers

Cell Phone - IASupporters of the Islamic State, most of them Persian speakers, were spied on by the government of Iran after they downloaded a fake smartphone application with wallpaper images, according to an online security firm. Iran is a major adversary of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. The latter considers Shiism (Iran’s state religion) as an abomination. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), relies largely on supporters from the Arabic-speaking regions of the Levant. But according to estimates, Sunnis constitute about 10 percent of Iran’s population, and ISIS has found some fertile ground among Iran’s 8 million-strong Sunni minority. As a result, the government in Tehran is highly mistrustful of Iranian Sunnis, many of whom are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris or Turkomans, and systematically spies on them.

According to the Israeli online security firm Check Point Software Technologies, one way in which Tehran has spied on Persian-speaking ISIS supporters is through fake smartphone applications. In an article published last week, the company said it had uncovered a state-sponsored surveillance operation that it had codenamed “Domestic Kitten”. The Check Point article said that the operation had gone on for more than two years, but had remained undetected “due to the artful deception of its attackers towards their targets”. The surveillance of targeted phones was carried out with the help of an application that featured pro-ISIS-themed wallpapers, which users could download on their devices. Yet another program linked to the same vendor was a fake version of the Firat News Agency mobile phone application. The Firat News Agency is a legitimate Iranian information service featuring news about Iran’s Kurdish minority. But both applications were in fact malware that gave a remote party full access to all text messages sent or received on the compromised phones. They also gave a remote party access to records of phone calls, Internet browser activity and bookmarks, and all files stored on the compromised phones. Additionally, the fake applications gave away the geo-location of compromised devices, and used their built-in cameras and microphones as surveillance devices.

Check Point said that the majority of compromised phones belonged to Persian-speaking members of Iran’s Kurdish and Turkoman minorities. The company stressed that it was not able to confirm the identity of the sponsoring party with absolute accuracy. However, the nature of the fake applications, the infrastructure of the surveillance operation, as well as the identities of those targeted, posed a strong possibility that “Domestic Kitten” was sponsored by the government of Iran, it concluded. Last July, the American cyber security firm Symantec said that it had uncovered a new cyber espionage group called “Leafminer”, which was allegedly sponsored by the Iranian state. The group had reportedly launched attacks on more than 800 agencies and organizations in in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2018 | Permalink

Researchers uncover ‘ambitious’ Iranian hacker group that targets the Middle East

Computer hackingAn American cyber security firm has reported the discovery of a previously undetected, “highly active” Iranian cyber espionage group, whose extensive target list consists mainly of large organizations and companies in the Middle East. The cyber security firm Symantec, makers of Norton antivirus software, which uncovered the cyber espionage group’s existence, has dubbed it “Leafminer”. It said the group has been active since the beginning of 2017, but has “significantly ramped up its activities” in 2018 and is currently involved in dozens of ongoing attacks.

In a report published on Wednesday, Symantec said that its security experts managed to obtain what appears to be Leafminer’s master list of targets. The list is written in the Farsi language and contains just over 800 organizations, which according to Symantec researchers is “an ambitious goal” for any cyber espionage group. The organizations listed on the target sheet come from a variety of sectors, including government, transportation, the financial sector, energy and telecommunications. But the majority of the group’s targets appear to be in the petrochemical and government sectors. Additionally, virtually all of Leafminer’s targets are located in the Middle East and North Africa, in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Some of the group’s targets are located in Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Symantec said its researchers observed the Leafminer hackers execute attacks in real time on at least 40 targets in the Middle East, including on the website of an intelligence agency in Lebanon. According to the cyber security company, Leafminer uses a variety of hacking tools, including custom-designed malware and some publicly available software. The group’s operational sophistication is also varied, and ranges from complex, multilayered attacks to brute-force login attempts. Symantec said it concluded that the cyber espionage group originates from Iran because its master target list is written in Farsi and because Iran is virtually the only country in the Middle East that is missing from the target list. However, it said that it did not have sufficient evidence to link Leafminer to the Iranian government. In a separate development, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), said this week in its annual report that the government of Iran has significantly expanded its cyber warfare capabilities and “poses a danger to German companies and research institutions”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 2018 | Permalink

German spy chief warns against Chinese investment in German hi-tech firms

Hans-Georg MaassenThe head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has warned of security risks resulting from Chinese direct investment in high-technology German and other European companies. Since 2012, Hans-Georg Maassen has served as director of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Maassen said his agency had noticed an inverse correlation between cyber-espionage attacks on Germany by Chinese actors and the acquisition of German technology firms by Chinese companies. German counter-intelligence officials were puzzled, he said, about a dramatic reduction in Chinese cyber-espionage activities in 2016. But they eventually realized that cyber-espionage operations had been replaced by “lawful methods”, he said, such as direct takeovers of German hi-tech firms by Chinese companies.

The purpose of these takeovers was “to gain access to German technical know-how”, added Maassen. He went on to say that “industrial cyberespionage is no longer needed if an actor can simply exploit liberal economic regulations to buy companies, and then proceed to disembowel them, essentially cannibalize them, to gain access to their know-how”. The spy chief noted that Germany did not object to foreign investment and the free flow of capital from all countries, including China. However, he added, “certain direct investments in specific technologies can compromise domestic security”. Maassen mentioned several examples in his presentation, including the takeover of Kuka, a German robotics firm, by a Chinese investor in 2016. He said that in the past few months alone, Chinese companies have attempted to purchase stakes in 50Hertz, a German energy grid operator, German car manufacturer Daimler, and Cotesa, a German aerospace contractor.

In response to a question from a journalist about policy coordination between Germany and the European Union, Maassen said that Germany, France and Italy have been pressuring Brussels to update and modernize its screening procedures against foreign takeovers of companies that are involved in manufacturing and selling “sensitive technologies”. He noted that a new EU-wide screening mechanism should be in place by the end of 2018.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 April 2018 | Permalink

Previously obscure N. Korean hacker group is now stronger than ever, say experts

APT37A little-known North Korean cyber espionage group has widened its scope and increased its sophistication in the past year, and now threatens targets worldwide, according to a new report by a leading cyber security firm. Since 2010, most cyber-attacks by North Korean hackers have been attributed to a group dubbed “Lazarus” by cyber security specialists. The Lazarus Group is thought to have perpetrated the infamous Sony Pictures attacks in 2014, and the worldwide wave or ransomware attacks dubbed WannaCry by experts in 2017. It is widely believed that the Lazarus Group operates on behalf of the government of North Korea. Most of its operations constitute destructive attacks —mostly cyber sabotage— and financial criminal activity.

For the past six years, a smaller hacker element within the Lazarus Group has engaged in intelligence collection and cyber espionage. Cyber security researchers have dubbed this sub-element “APT37”, “ScarCruft” or “Group123”. Historically, APT37 has focused on civilian and military targets with links to the South Korean government. The hacker group has also targeted human rights groups and individual North Korean defectors living in South Korea. However, a new report warns that APT37 has significantly expanded its activities in terms of both scope and sophistication in the past year. The report, published on Tuesday by the cyber security firm FireEye, suggests that APT37 has recently struck at targets in countries like Vietnam and Japan, and that its activities have disrupted telecommunications networks and commercial hubs in the Middle East.

According to the FireEye report, aerospace companies, financial institutions and telecom- munications service providers in at least three continents have been targeted by APT37 in recent months. What is even more worrying, says the report, is that the hacker group is now capable of exploiting so-called “zero-day” vulnerabilities. These are software bugs and glitches in commonly used software, which have not been detected by software providers and are therefore exploitable by malicious hackers. FireEye said in its report that the North Korean regime will be tempted to use APT37 increasingly often “in previously unfamiliar roles and regions”, as cyber security experts are catching up with some of Pyongyang’s more visible hacker groups, such as Lazarus.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 February 2018 | Permalink

Russian hacker claims he was hired by Kremlin to target US Democratic Party

Konstantin KozlovskyA member of a prolific Russian hacker group reportedly stated in court that he was hired by the Russian government to break into the computer systems of the Democratic Party in the United States. The hacker, Konstantin Kozlovsky, operated online as a member of Lurk, a notorious hacker group whose members are believed to have stolen in excess of $45 million from hundreds of companies since 2011. Most of the group’s members were apprehended in a wave of 50 arrests that took place throughout Russia in the summer of 2016. The group’s nine most senior members, Kozlovsky being one of them, were put on trial earlier this year.

Last Monday, Russian website The Bell reported that Kozlovsky said during his court testimony in August of this year that he was hired by the Kremlin to hack into the computers of the Democratic Party in the US. The website claimed that he and his fellow Lurk hackers regularly worked for the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service. For nearly a decade, said Kozlovsky, he and other hackers “performed different tasks on assignments by FSB officers”. In his testimony of August 15, Kozlovsky reportedly said that some of the tasks performed by Lurk on behalf of the FSB included hacking into the computers of the Democratic National Committee, which is the governing body for the Democratic Party in the US. He also claimed that he and his fellow hackers stole emails belonging to the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The Bell published Kozlovsky’s claims on its website in both Russian and English. According to to The Times of London, the website also posted minutes from the court hearing, as well as a recording of Kozlovsky’s testimony, on its page on Facebook. Kozlovsky also claimed that the FSB recruited him in 2008, when he was 16 years old, and that he worked under the supervision of Dmitry Dokuchaev, a notorious criminal hacker known as ‘Forb’, who was arrested and subsequently recruited by the FSB. Kozlovsky added that he participated in “very serious military enterprises of the United States and other organizations” under Dokuchaev’s supervision.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 December 2017 | Permalink