The recent meeting in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un appears to have attracted an inordinate amount of interest in US activities from threat actors based in Russia.
Cyberattacks on targets in Singapore skyrocketed from June 11 and June 12 – the period immediately preceding and following the highly hyped meeting. Nearly nine out of 10 of the attacks (88%) on June 12 were launched from Russia, with apparently no effort to conceal their origin.
An analysis of data collected by F5 Networks, in concert with partner Loryka, showed that 97% of all attacks emanating from Russia during the two-day period were directed at Singapore. Of the total attacks launched from all countries, Russia was the top attacker, responsible for 34% of them, and Singapore was the top recipient of global attacks, says Sara Boddy, director of F5 Labs.
"We monitor global attack traffic on a regular basis, and Singapore is not usually a top 10 attacked country," Boddy says. "The fact that Singapore was the top attacked country that day was an anomaly and the reason we noticed the attacks in the first place."
F5 says it cannot prove whether the attackers were state-sponsored. But the fact that the huge spike in attack volume happened right around the time the two leaders were meeting to discuss denuclearization of the Korean peninsula leaves little doubt about the motives, it says.
The attacks also are consistent with recent incidents of apparent Russian involvement in coordinated cyber attacks against US targets and interests. The attacks go well beyond the country's alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and include campaigns on US critical infrastructure, government, and military targets.
Earlier this year, the US-CERT issued a highly unusual advisory in which it warned explicitly of Russian government-sponsored attacks on network infrastructure devices. The continuing barrage of attacks prompted numerous US government sanctions against Russian entities and individuals recently, including one that was announced just last week.
The most recent attacks in Singapore generally targeted voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones and Internet of things (IoT devices). Malicious activity actually began June 11 in Brazil and targeted port SIP 5060, which IP phones use to transmit communications in clear text. After this initial stage, most of the attacks were reconnaissance scans launched from a Russian IP address and directed at a variety of ports, including Telnet, which suggests IoT devices were in the attackers' crosshairs, F5 says. The IP address from which the scans were launched belonged to a network block belonging to Russian Internet hosting provider Selectel.
Judging from the ports that were mainly targeted, the attacks appear to have been an attempt to gain access to and listen in on targets of interest in Singapore. The SIP port, in particular, received 25 times as many attacks as the Telnet port, suggesting that attackers were trying to gain access to insecure VoIP phones or VoIP servers, according to F5. Significantly, no malware was used in the attacks.
"The protocols the attackers were targeting suggest they were looking for IoT devices to compromise, specifically voice-over-IP phones, SOHO routers, and other devices that leave Telnet open for remote administration," Boddy notes. Once these devices are compromised, attackers can spy on communications, collect data, or launch attacks from them.
Given the extensive global interest in Trump's meeting with Kim Jong Un, it’s not surprising that attackers would try and attack devices such as IoT devices inside hotels and IP cameras outside to try and get close to targets of interest.
"Note that attackers can do this at any point in time, in any major city, against any target of interest," Boddy says. "The CIA is even working against this problem so their spies don’t get exposed." For instance, it's already well-known that Russia, specifically, has gained persistent access to routers in the US for the purposes of spying.
What was new with the Singapore attacks was the targeting of VoIP phones via port SIP 5060 attacks. "This is an indication that the attackers have found a way to exploit VoIP phones that the industry doesn’t know about yet," Boddy speculates. "If that is true, it would also speak to the level of sophistication of the attackers."
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