Hack-for-Hire Firm Connected to Attacks on Nonprofits, Journalists

The Dark Basin group behind thousands of phishing and malware attacks is likely an India-based "ethical hacking" firm that works on behalf of commercial clients.

4 Min Read

An India-based firm whose slogan is "you desire, we do" has launched cyberattacks against thousands of individuals and organizations across the globe as part of a large commercial and government-funded espionage operation, according to the University of Toronto's CitizenLab, a multiorganizational research team.

The hack-for-hire operation, dubbed "Dark Basin" by CitizenLab, targeted nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups, such as climate advocacy groups and net-neutrality campaigns, as well as commercial targets, such as financial firms and pharmaceutical companies. One specific target: a large cluster of individuals and organizations — including the Center for International Environmental Law, Climate Investigations Center, Greenpeace, and the Union of Concerned Scientists — collaborating on the #ExxonKnew campaign, which focused on uncovering what ExxonMobil had discovered and kept secret about the impact of climate change.

"Over the course of our multi-year investigation, we found that Dark Basin likely conducted commercial espionage on behalf of their clients against opponents involved in high profile public events, criminal cases, financial transactions, news stories, and advocacy," the CitizenLab researchers stated in a blog post. "In addition to the targeting of civil society, we found that journalists from multiple major US media outlets were also targeted."

The brazen targeting of civilian groups and nonprofit organizations by what appears to be commercial clients highlights the growing acceptance of hack-for-hire cyber operations as an under-the-table business tactic. In the report, the CitizenLab researchers pointed to previous court cases and documents that indicated similar operations have provided evidence in legal disputes, often at the behest of law firms and private investigators.

In late May, Google noted that hack-for-hire operations had taken off in India and had specifically targeted businesses and individuals by disguising phishing attempts as notifications from the World Health Organization. 

"The accounts have largely targeted business leaders in financial services, consulting, and healthcare corporations within numerous countries including the U.S., Slovenia, Canada, India, Bahrain, Cyprus, and the UK," Google stated in its advisory. "The sites typically feature fake login pages that prompt potential victims to give up their Google account credentials, and occasionally encourage individuals to give up other personal information, such as their phone numbers."

In the most recent case, the company behind the operation appears to be BellTrox InfoTech Services, a conclusion that CitizenLab researchers made with "high confidence." Calling the targeting of individuals and groups exercising their first amendment rights as "exceptionally troubling," the researchers called out the firm but could not connect the actions with any specific company that may have been a client of the firm.

"Many of Dark Basin's targets have a strong but unconfirmed sense that the targeting is linked to a dispute or conflict with a particular party whom they know," the researchers stated in the report. "However, absent a systematic investigation, it is difficult for most individuals to determine with certainty who undertakes these phishing campaigns and/or who may be contracting for such services, especially given that Dark Basin's employees or executives are unlikely to be within the jurisdiction of their local law enforcement."

The Dark Basin group made a fundamental error that has also plagued legitimate web applications: using sequential numbers as part of the URLs sent to victims, which allows researchers to get an idea of the true scope of the attacks by enumerating every URL. The CitizenLab researchers tracked 28 custom URL-shortening services created by BellTrox using an open source project called Phurl. The investigation allowed the researchers to uncover nearly 28,000 shortened URLs sent to targets. In many cases, the e-mail address was included in the URL.

"This campaign operated at a scale we had not previously detected in our research into targeted intrusion operations—versus generic phishing operations," the CitizenLab researchers wrote, adding that "we concluded that Dark Basin's deceptions, while individually not always effective, did achieve some account access in part because the group could be extremely persistent."

The CitizenLab group ended the report with a warning.

"The rise of large-scale, commercialized hacking threatens civil society," the researchers said. "As this report shows, it can be used as a tool of the powerful to target organizations that may not have sophisticated cybersecurity resources and consequently are vulnerable to such attacks. ... We believe it is especially urgent that all parties involved in these phishing campaigns are held fully accountable."

At the request of several of the targets, the researchers have provided materials and indicators of compromise to the US Department of Justice.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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