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Hackers said to infiltrate European foreign affairs ministries ahead of G20

Syria-themed rogue emails were used to infect computers of foreign affairs ministers in five European countries, FireEye researchers said

By Lucian Constantin, IDG News Service
December 10, 2013 10:21 AM ET

IDG News Service - Hackers of likely Chinese origin infiltrated computers belonging to the foreign affairs ministries of five unnamed European countries ahead of the G20 Summit in September, according to security researchers at FireEye.

Researchers from the security firm analyzed the attack campaign, which it dubbed Ke3chang, and gained temporary access to one of the command-and-control (CnC) servers used by the hacker group.

After gaining access to their targets' computers, the hackers moved through internal networks infecting other systems and performing reconnaissance, according a FireEye report.

The researchers lost access to the CnC server they were monitoring before attackers started extracting sensitive information from the compromised systems -- an operational phase known as data exfiltration. However, they believe this was the end goal of the attackers.

The attack campaign, which the attackers tracked on their servers using the tag "moviestar," began in August and used spear-phishing emails with a malicious attachment called US_military_options_in_Syria.zip.

The attachment contained an executable file which, when opened, installed a backdoor-type program that allowed attackers to upload or download files and run shell commands on the compromised systems.

The FireEye researchers believe the Syrian theme of the rogue emails and the timing of the attacks, which were launched shortly before the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, was not a coincidence. The G20 meeting was dominated by questions over the Syrian civil war and a potential U.S. military intervention following the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict.

"We believe that the Ke3chang attackers are operating out of China and have been active since at least 2010," the researchers said in their report.

The attackers used 23 different CnC servers and FireEye had access to one of them for about a week. During that time, the researchers identified 21 compromised computers connecting to the server.

"Among the targets, we identified nine compromises at government ministries in five different European countries," the researchers said. "Eight of these compromises were at MFAs [ministries of foreign affairs]."

Over the years, the same attackers targeted organizations from the aerospace, energy, government, high-tech, consulting services, chemicals, manufacturing and mining sectors in several different campaigns. However, the number of victims hasn't been large -- sometimes even a single victim per campaign -- which suggests that this hacker group is very selective about its targets, the researchers said.

This is not the first attack from the Ke3chang group that is possibly related to a G20 meeting. In 2011, the group launched an attack using spear-phishing emails with links to a malicious archive that they claimed contained nude pictures of Italian-French singer Carla Bruni, the wife of then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The malware distributed in that campaign connected to a CnC server that had the string "g20news" in its host name. Because of this, FireEye believes the campaign's targets may have been related to the meeting between G20 finance ministers held in Paris on Oct. 15, 2011.

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