Don't ignore cyber operations outside US and European interests, researcher says. We can learn a lot from methods used by attackers that aren't among the usual suspects.

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Western cybersecurity researchers should track more closely the cyber operations associated with local real-world conflicts in regions that tend not to generate attention in the US and Europe in order to better prepare for future attacks, a security researcher with threat intelligence firm DomainTools said on Nov. 25.

In a public analysis, Joe Slowik, a senior security researcher with the company, traced documents with malicious links and code that targeted participants in the two-month conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. A single document led to others as well as a web of associated domains and email addresses, showing that the regional conflict had spawned cyber operations targeted at groups within those two countries.

While some cybersecurity researchers have attributed the attacks to a threat actor known as Cloud Atlas, which has been linked to Russian intelligence, the group could be a smaller player, as the connections to previous Russian activity are not strong, Slowik says. Researchers tend to focus on the Big 5 players in cyber activity — China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States — he says.

"That is a myopic view, and it is largely tinged by a threat model focused on North American and European entities," he says. "We as researchers need to focus on these smaller, more localized events, because there are far more entities playing in these games than the Big 5 that we tend to focus on to the exclusion of other entities."

The low-key cyberattacks surrounding the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict — also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the region at the heart of the dispute — highlight the growth of cyber operations as an increasingly common tactic in any conflict, no matter the size, Slowik stated in the public analysis.

In Brazil, unknown attackers targeted the nation's Superior Court of Justice with a major cyberattack that will disrupt cases for at least a week, according to reports. In August, the Pakistani Army accused Indian intelligence of targeting officials' mobile phones in a hacking and espionage campaign. And in April, Vietnam allegedly attacked Chinese targets to collect information on the evolving coronavirus pandemic and research.

Security researchers and companies should pay more attention to such attacks, even if they don't directly impact operations, Slowik says. 

"I think we are missing a lot of activity out there by not looking into smaller regional conflicts that don't involve the United States or US entities," he says. "We, as researchers, need to focus on these smaller, more localized events, because there are far more entities playing in these games than the Big 5, and we tend to exclude other potential threats."

While election coverage and the fight over transition funds have dominated headlines in the US for the past three months, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict restarted in September and ended on Nov. 10, resulting in Azerbaijan recapturing territory that had seceded in the late 1980s. Both Russia and Turkey gained significant advantages in helping resolve the conflict, with Russia providing peacekeepers to police the former Soviet states. 

Yet smaller players in the region became more active as well. Greek hackers allegedly defaced the website of the Turkish Parliament as well as dozens of Azerbaijani sites, which Turkey supports, as part of a long-running feud between the countries. In August, Greece's National Intelligence Service hired more cybersecurity professionals to beef up its capabilities, according to reports.

As evidence of the applicability of intelligence from these smaller conflicts, however, Slowik points to the fact that the documents used in by the cyber actors in the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict are not detected as malicious by many malware scanners.

While many cybersecurity professionals argue that attackers have the advantage — often through the maxim "defenders have to be right all the time, attackers only have to be right once" — Slowik takes a different stance, one that requires the best information.

"Defenders have an advantage because attackers always have to play on our turf to be successful, but to ensure defense, we have to be aware of how attackers are adapting over time," he says. "By having a wide scope, we get a better picture of attacker tradecraft, rather than missing developments that could leave us open to intrusion vectors that we were not expecting."

And to maintain that wide scope, researchers should focus on more than just the Big 5, he says.

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, 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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