Russian Hacking Uncovered

The U.S. and UK announced Russian hacking, including attempts to derail the last few Olympic Games. The EU also announced unrelated cyber sanctions.

The United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters’ (GCHQ) National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) unveiled the Russian Federation’s military hacking of past Olympics and the scheduled but delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Even though the NCSC did not speculate on Russian motivation, it is likely this was designed as payback for having been exposed for widespread doping and cheating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The NCSC stated it “assesses with high confidence that these attacks were carried out by the GRU’s Main Centre for Specialist Technologies (GTsST), also known as Sandworm and VoodooBear.” The NCSC explained it “exposed malicious cyber activity from Russia’s GRU military intelligence service against organisations involved in the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games before they were postponed.”

The NCSC stated:

  • The activity involved cyber reconnaissance by the GRU targeting officials and organisations involved in the Games, which had been due to take place in Tokyo during the summer.
  • The incidents were the latest in a campaign of Russian malicious activity against the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with the UK also today revealing details of GRU targeting of the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea.
  • In the attacks on the 2018 Games, the GRU’s cyber unit attempted to disguise itself as North Korean and Chinese hackers when it targeted the opening ceremony. It went on to target broadcasters, a ski resort, Olympic officials and sponsors of the games.
  • The GRU deployed data-deletion malware against the Winter Games IT systems and targeted devices across the Republic of Korea using VPNFilter.
  • The NCSC assesses that the incident was intended to sabotage the running of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, as the malware was designed to wipe data from and disable computers and networks. Administrators worked to isolate the malware and replace the affected computers, preventing potential disruption.

In concert with the NCSC’s announcement, the United States’ Department of Justice (DOJ) released grand jury indictments of six GRU hackers for the foiled Olympic hack and other attacks dating from nearly five years ago to the present around the world. In one of the attacks, three United States (U.S.) companies allegedly suffered $1 billion in losses. The DOJ noted that cybersecurity researchers bestowed various names on the hackers including: “Sandworm Team,” “Telebots,” “Voodoo Bear,” and “Iron Viking,” and in the indictment, the DOJ claimed the object of the conspiracy “was to deploy malware and take other disruptive actions for the strategic benefit of Russia, through unauthorized access (“hacking”) of victim computers.”

In its press release, the DOJ stated that “[o]n Oct. 15, 2020, a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh returned an indictment charging six computer hackers, all of whom were residents and nationals of the Russian Federation (Russia) and officers in Unit 74455 of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.”

The DOJ asserted:

These GRU hackers and their co-conspirators engaged in computer intrusions and attacks intended to support Russian government efforts to undermine, retaliate against, or otherwise destabilize: (1) Ukraine; (2) Georgia; (3) elections in France; (4) efforts to hold Russia accountable for its use of a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok, on foreign soil; and (5) the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games after Russian athletes were banned from participating under their nation’s flag, as a consequence of Russian government-sponsored doping effort. 

The DOJ stated

  • Their computer attacks used some of the world’s most destructive malware to date, including: KillDisk and Industroyer, which each caused blackouts in Ukraine; NotPetya, which caused nearly $1 billion in losses to the three victims identified in the indictment alone; and Olympic Destroyer, which disrupted thousands of computers used to support the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.  The indictment charges the defendants with conspiracy, computer hacking, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and false registration of a domain name.
  • According to the indictment, beginning in or around November 2015 and continuing until at least in or around October 2019, the defendants and their co-conspirators deployed destructive malware and took other disruptive actions, for the strategic benefit of Russia, through unauthorized access  to victim computers (hacking). 

The DOJ stated “[a]s alleged, the conspiracy was responsible for the following destructive, disruptive, or otherwise destabilizing computer intrusions and attacks:

  • Ukrainian Government & Critical Infrastructure: December 2015 through December 2016 destructive malware attacks against Ukraine’s electric power grid, Ministry of Finance, and State Treasury Service, using malware known as BlackEnergy, Industroyer, and KillDisk;
  • French Elections: April and May 2017 spearphishing campaigns and related hack-and-leak efforts targeting French President Macron’s “La République En Marche!” (En Marche!) political party, French politicians, and local French governments prior to the 2017 French elections;
  • Worldwide Businesses and Critical Infrastructure (NotPetya): June 27, 2017 destructive malware attacks that infected computers worldwide using malware known as NotPetya, including hospitals and other medical facilities in the Heritage Valley Health System (Heritage Valley) in the Western District of Pennsylvania; a FedEx Corporation subsidiary, TNT Express B.V.; and a large U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturer, which together suffered nearly $1 billion in losses from the attacks;
  • PyeongChang Winter Olympics Hosts, Participants, Partners, and Attendees: December 2017 through February 2018 spearphishing campaigns and malicious mobile applications targeting South Korean citizens and officials, Olympic athletes, partners, and visitors, and International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials;
  • PyeongChang Winter Olympics IT Systems (Olympic Destroyer): December 2017 through February 2018 intrusions into computers supporting the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, which culminated in the Feb. 9, 2018, destructive malware attack against the opening ceremony, using malware known as Olympic Destroyer;
  • Novichok Poisoning Investigations: April 2018 spearphishing campaigns targeting investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) into the nerve agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and several U.K. citizens; and
  • Georgian Companies and Government Entities: a 2018 spearphishing campaign targeting a major media company, 2019 efforts to compromise the network of Parliament, and a wide-ranging website defacement campaign in 2019.

The NCSC and the DOJ are, of course, continuing the standard play of naming and shaming, further portraying Russia as a multi-faceted threat to the democracies in Europe, the United States, and those in the Eastern Pacific region. The coordinated announcement also indicate further the degree to which these nations are working together to fend off Russian information operations and hacking, and such announcements also serve to rally even greater cooperation. In terms of why these indictments were handed down now given how long it has been clear Russia conducted many of these attacks, there are several possible motivations. Firstly, this may be not so subtle pushing back by the DOJ’s National Security Division and NCSC against top Trump Administration officials claiming the People’s Republic of China and Iran are the equals of Russia. For example, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe characterized Iran as the more serious threat to the 2020 Election even though unnamed officials said the exact opposite to media outlets. Second, it could be coincidental that the DOJ decided to seek these indictments and the purpose is, indeed, to put Russia on notice by detailing its widespread unparalleled hacking campaigns in an attempt to give governments around the world a full view of Russia’s intentions and activities. Moreover, as extensive as these allegations are, they omit the attempted Russian hacking about which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned U.S. critical cyber infrastructure owners and operators this past summer.

In a seemingly unrelated announcement, Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the State Research Center of the Russian Federation FGUP Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics (TsNIIKhM), “a Russian government-controlled research institution that is responsible for building customized tools that enabled the attack” for the Triton malware in the Middle East and against U.S. electric companies. OFAC did not identify the attackers although it seems probable that it is GRU given the laundry list of attacks in the DOJ indictment.

OFAC asserted:

  • The Triton malware — known also as TRISIS and HatMan in open source reporting — was designed specifically to target and manipulate industrial safety systems. Such systems provide for the safe emergency shutdown of industrial processes at critical infrastructure facilities in order to protect human life. The cyber actors behind the Triton malware have been referred to by the private cybersecurity industry as “the most dangerous threat activity publicly known.”
  • In recent years, the Triton malware has been deployed against U.S. partners in the Middle East, and the hackers behind the malware have been reportedly scanning and probing U.S. facilities. The development and deployment of the Triton malware against our partners is particularly troubling given the Russian government’s involvement in malicious and dangerous cyber-enabled activities. Previous examples of Russia’s reckless activities in cyberspace include, but are not limited to: the NotPetya cyber-attack, the most destructive and costly cyber-attack in history; cyber intrusions against the U.S. energy grid to potentially enable future offensive operations; the targeting of international organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Anti-Doping Agency; and the 2019 disruptive cyber-attack against the country of Georgia.

The Council of the European Union (Council) also announced sanctions against a portion of the GRU and two of its hackers responsible for penetrating and exfiltrating information from Germany’s Bundestag and the attempted hack of  the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Netherlands. This is the second time the European Union has utilized its cyber sanction powers put in place in 2019 in “Council Decision (CFSP) 2019/797 of 17 May 2019 concerning restrictive measures against cyber-attacks threatening the Union or its Member States.”

The Council explained:

  • Today’s sanctions consist of a travel ban and an asset freeze imposed on the individuals, and an asset freeze imposed on the body. In addition, EU persons and entities are forbidden from making funds available to those listed.
  • The Council’s decision means that a total of 8 persons and 4 entities and bodies have been targeted by restrictive measures in relation to cyber-attacks targeting the EU or its member states.
  • Sanctions are one of the options available in the Union’s framework for a joint diplomatic response to malicious cyber activities (the so-called cyber diplomacy toolbox), and are intended to prevent, discourage, deter and respond to continuing and increasing malicious behaviour in cyberspace.

The Council sanctioned the “85th Main Centre for Special Services (GTsSS) of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GU/GRU)” and two hackers. The Council contended:

  • In particular, military intelligence officers of the GTsSS took part in the cyber-attack against the German federal parliament (Deutscher Bundestag) which took place in April and May 2015 and the attempted cyber-attack aimed at hacking into the Wi-Fi network of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Netherlands in April 2018.
  • The cyber-attack against the German federal parliament targeted the parliament’s information system and affected its operation for several days. A significant amount of data was stolen and email accounts of several MPs as well as of Chancellor Angela Merkel were affected.

In late July, the EU imposed its first cyber sanctions under its Framework for a Joint EU Diplomatic Response to Malicious Cyber Activities (aka the cyber diplomacy toolbox) against six hackers and three entities from the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for attacks against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Netherlands, the malware attacks known as Petya and WannaCry, and Operation Cloud Hopper. The sanctions are part of the effort to levy costs on nations and actors that conduct cyber attacks. The EU explained:

  • The attempted cyber-attack was aimed at hacking into the Wi-Fi network of the OPCW, which, if successful, would have compromised the security of the network and the OPCW’s ongoing investigatory work. The Netherlands Defence Intelligence and Security Service (DISS) (Militaire Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst – MIVD) disrupted the attempted cyber-attack, thereby preventing serious damage to the OPCW.
  • “WannaCry” disrupted information systems around the world by targeting information systems with ransomware and blocking access to data. It affected information systems of companies in the Union, including information systems relating to services necessary for the maintenance of essential services and economic activities within Member States.
  • “NotPetya” or “EternalPetya” rendered data inaccessible in a number of companies in the Union, wider Europe and worldwide, by targeting computers with ransomware and blocking access to data, resulting amongst others in significant economic loss. The cyber-attack on a Ukrainian power grid resulted in parts of it being switched off during winter.
  • “Operation Cloud Hopper” has targeted information systems of multinational companies in six continents, including companies located in the Union, and gained unauthorised access to commercially sensitive data, resulting in significant economic loss.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photo by Victor Malyushev on Unsplash

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