🔑 Key Takeaways
- Nation states use elite hackers and advanced malware to conduct cyber espionage. Companies must have strong security measures to protect against APTs like Operation Socialist.
- Even the largest corporations can fall victim to highly advanced cyber attacks from attackers with considerable resources, who use unknown malware, exploit software bugs, and hide their tracks, calling for systematic and secret investigations.
- Even friendly nation states can engage in cyber-attacks and espionage, with devastating consequences to victims. Vigilance and strict security measures are necessary for all organizations to protect their network and data.
- Telecom companies, despite their highly-secured environments and skilled IT teams, are vulnerable to advanced cyber attacks like timing attacks developed by organizations like GCHQ and NSA. Companies need to be extra-vigilant and prepared to protect their users' data.
- Cyberattacks have grave implications, not only for the technology sphere but also for global politics. The complexity involved, along with the lack of cooperation between nations, can result in a diplomatic fallout, further complicating matters.
- The use of malware and mass-surveillance by government agencies can breach user privacy and lead to legal action against the agencies.
- Regin malware is a highly sophisticated tool designed to remain hidden while providing hackers with extensive remote control over GSM systems, giving them the ability to intercept calls, access emails, and steal sensitive information.
- Regin, a sophisticated malware, is used for nation-state espionage. It is designed to remain hidden and undetected, making it difficult to track. Despite its potential risks, few are willing to expose a nation state's weapon in the fight for national security, as evidenced by a legal complaint filed against MI5, MI6, and GCHQ for their involvement with Regin.
- Although GCHQ's hacking was deemed legal, the specifics of the Belgacom cyber-attack are still unclear. While the attack did not seem to target bulk data, it highlighted the importance of strong cybersecurity measures.
- Perimeter security is no longer enough as nation-states target businesses, compromising people and ignoring political agreements. Businesses and governments must take additional steps to protect against evolving cyber threats.
📝 Podcast Summary
Covert Cyber Attacks & the Story of Operation Socialist
Nation states are now carrying out covert and silent cyber attacks to spy on other countries and steal information. Governments train elite hackers to infiltrate networks and remain undetected for years. The story of Operation Socialist is about how one country used one of the most advanced malware toolkits ever found to break into a global telecom provider. Belgacom, being the largest telecom company in Belgium and providing services to the European Parliament, European Council, and European Commission, became an attractive target for hackers. The attack on Belgacom was an APT - an advanced persistent threat - and not run-of-the-mill malware. Companies like Belgacom must have strong security measures in place to protect against such attacks.
The Advanced Techniques Used by Sophisticated Cyber Attackers
Sophisticated cyber attackers with considerable resources, coders, and electrical engineers at their disposal can conduct highly advanced cyber attacks on even the biggest corporations. These attackers use malware that is not known by any antivirus company and can exploit fully updated software as they can think ahead of software companies and exploit bugs not known to the developers. They also hide their attack evidence by wiping the logs that can indicate anything was ever installed to make detection of their malware even harder. In addition, sophisticated attackers conduct attacks in multiple stages and delete evidence after each stage to avoid detection. Moreover, when a company discovers it has been attacked, it should investigate the attack systematically and secretively.
The Shocking Cyber-Attack on Belgacom by GCHQ and NSA
Belgacom was a victim of a cyber-attack that infected their network to the core and led to the replacement of their network devices. After the cleanup, a router started to malfunction, indicating another attack. It was only after this attack was prevented that Belgacom publicly announced the cyber-attack. A few days later, Snowden leaked information that GCHQ was tapping fiberoptic cables to collect data. Five days after Belgacom's weekend clean-up, it was leaked that the cyber-attack on Belgacom was carried out by GCHQ using technology from the NSA called Quantum Insert. This was a shocking revelation as Belgium and Britain are friendly nation states. The attack was called Operation Socialist and was logged as a success.
The Vulnerability of Telecom Companies to Advanced Cyber Attacks
Telecom companies are high-profile targets due to the extensive communications infrastructures they manage and huge amounts of sensitive user data they hold. Although they have highly-secured environments with skilled IT teams, defending against attackers like GCHQ or NSA is extremely difficult. GCHQ allegedly hacked into Belgacom's network using a technology called Quantum Insert developed by the NSA, which allowed them to split the web traffic and deliver malicious software to victim's machine. This attack is a timing attack and requires access to a router in between the victim and LinkedIn. It took at least a year to create the malware. Companies need to be extra-vigilant and prepared for the advanced tactics of cyber-criminals to protect themselves and their users' data.
The Intricate Layers of the Belgacom Attack and the International Politics that Followed.
The attack on Belgacom was a sophisticated man-on-the-side attack where attackers add new messages to communications between the user and the legitimate web server using a Quantum Server. This requires control over the backbone of the internet. The NSA may have helped GCHQ conduct the attacks to get initial access as LinkedIn is an American company. However, investigating the malware that infected Belgacom, the trail led to servers rented under fake names and addresses registered in the UK. The Belgians investigating the malware approached the British Home Office to help investigate the servers, but they refused, causing political tension. Belgium considered bringing Snowden to testify about the authenticity of the documents, but that would have a diplomatic fallout. Federal prosecutors sought help from Europol but hit a brick wall.
The aftermath of the Belgacom cyber-attack fueled a lawsuit against GCHQ for mass-surveillance operations.
The cyber-attack on Belgacom caused serious ripples in the telecommunication industry, leading internet service providers of six countries to sue the British spy agency, GCHQ, for mass-surveillance operations that breached user privacy. The legal action referred to the Belgacom attack, which had targeted tech staff with admin access rights. This was the third legal action taken by civil liberties charity, Privacy International, against the GCHQ, based on intelligence operations revealed in Snowden leaks. The malware used in the Belgacom attack was a sophisticated toolkit called Regin, believed to be the work of a nation-state actor. Security companies had been tracking Regin for years, and it was used in attacks worldwide.
Regin Malware - The Ultimate Spy Platform
Regin is a highly sophisticated malware platform designed to spy on enemy states and provide extensive remote control of the target systems. It can infiltrate GSM systems, mobile base stations, giving hackers control over mobile networks, potentially allowing them to listen to and record calls and intercept and redirect them. Regin's ultimate goal is to watch, listen, capture, and remain hidden at all costs, providing access to take screenshots, steal files, collect keystrokes, and access emails. This malware has hit telecoms companies, research institutions, financial institutions, and government agencies across at least fourteen different countries and is similar to other malware such as Flame and Duqu, which are believed to have been created by the NSA or its partner intelligence agencies.
Regin: The Stealthy Malware for State-Sponsored Espionage
Regin is a stealthy, state-sponsored malware used for nation-state espionage. It is delivered in five encrypted stages that only make sense when decrypted in order. Regin is designed to remain hidden, undetected, and untrackable. It hides its stolen data by splitting it into multiple packets and disguises its communication to the infected servers. The longer attackers can use Regin, the more value they can get. The security companies agree it is state-sponsored, but no one wants to expose a nation state's weapon in the fight for national security. A legal complaint was filed against MI5, MI6, and GCHQ for their involvement with Regin.
GCHQ's Hacking Ruled Legal, But Questions Remain
The Tribunal ruled that the computer network exploitation or hacking carried out by the GCHQ was legal and didn't violate individual rights. The Belgacom cyber-attack in GCHQ involvement was still being questioned, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium suggested that Belgium might have agreed to the attack. However, the intelligence operations of any country are not open to the public, and we will never know the truth. Belgacom didn't believe that the attack aimed to extract bulk data from their networks. Despite the cyber-attack, the company's share price was up 40% a year after the hack. Proximus, as they are now known, invested heavily in cyber-security since the attack was discovered in 2013.
The Growing Threat of Nation-State Cyber-Attacks to Businesses and Governments
Nation-state attacks on businesses are a real threat even to sophisticated businesses with advanced security measures. Perimeter security is no longer enough as cyber-attacks involve compromising people, including system administrators. Cyber-attacks like these have no boundaries, and political agreements are ignored. The online world offers anonymity and deniability, making it impossible to find conclusive evidence for criminal charges against nation-state attackers. A friendly nation-state can still attack a friendly, allied state, making the rules and response different. As cyber-crime and cyber-warfare continue to evolve, businesses and governments need to take additional steps to protect what they care about from sophisticated actors.