The Ghost Squad Hackers (GSH), an offshoot of the hacktivist group Anonymous, has been active during this COVID-19 period after remaining fairly quiet these past couple of years, according to a blog post by cyberthreat intelligence firm Vigilante.
"We think the hacks are probably attempts to undermine public confidence in government at a time of universal unease due to the COVID-19 pandemic," says Adam Darrah, Vigilante's director of intelligence, adding that more such attacks could follow from GSH or other hacktivist groups. "The United States is a highly desirable target, and it would make sense that hacktivists would pour salt on the wounds in a country like Italy, which has had such a hard time."
While most of the incidents are defacements, a common hacktivist tactic, there were instances in which GSH became a root owner of an Indian government server and also leaked administrative accounts from the Australian government, Darrah says. He has no knowledge as to whether any sensitive information was leaked or stolen, he added.
The recent GSH attacks cited in the Vigilante blog took place in Australia, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Zimbabwe. GSH gained notoriety in 2016 when it defaced Ethiopian government websites following a protest in which government security forces killed nearly 500 students and activists. The group also gained attention during the 2016 Presidential campaign when it launched distributed denial-of-service (DOS) attacks on then-candidate Donald Trump's website and shut down his hotel collection websites. GSH also famously leaked data considered sensitive by the Israeli Defense Forces, an attack it reportedly conducted along with Anonymous called #OpIsrael.
While it's possible these latest attacks by GSH could lead to a rise in COVID-19-related hacktivism, other researchers say they haven't seen an increase over the past month or two.
"Looking at [GSH's] Twitter feed, where they share alleged proof of successfully defacing various government websites, it doesn't appear that any of these defacements were made specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic," says Alex Guirakhoo, strategy and research analyst at Digital Shadows, a provider of digital risk protection solutions. "Some of these claims are using hashtags associated with previous hacktivist campaigns, like #FreeJulianAssange."
Kristin Del Rosso, senior security intelligence engineer at Lookout, a provider of mobile phishing solutions, says the company's research group hasn't seen any direct evidence of hacktivism, though it has seen nation-state attacks from Syria and Libya leveraging COVID-19.
"As these attacks gain more attention, they have the potential to draw in a response from hacktivists," Del Rosso says.
Other security researchers think COVID-19-related hacktivism will remain extremely limited. Guirakhoo, for example, says there have been no significant reports of successful coordinated attacks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says various cyberattacks, including defacements and DDoS attacks, have traditionally followed real-world activist campaigns, such as OpCatalunya, a response to ongoing political and social tensions between the Catalonian autonomous community and the Spanish government. Even major events such as the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in April 2019 and the controversial killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 only prompted a minimal hacktivist response.
"This is a far cry from the levels of hacktivism in the early 2010s," he says. "While it's realistically possible that fringe hacktivist groups may use website defacement to push conspiracy theories or target governments with DDoS attacks in response to their handling of the COVID-19 situation, we expect ideologically motivated cyber activity to remain unpopular throughout the pandemic unless a major socio-political event prompts a reaction from established, coordinated hacktivist groups.”
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