A Russian-speaking hacker who last November broke into the US Election Assistance Commission (EAC) network and attempted to sell access to its database has breached dozens of universities as well as city, state, and federal government agencies.
All but 10 of the more than 50 victims targeted by the hacker are based in the US. They include Cornell University, Virginia Tech, the City of Springfield, MA, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in D.C., US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
In an alert, threat intelligence management firm Recorded Future described the breaches by the hacker dubbed Rasputin as similar in nature to the intrusion at the EAC, and involving the use of a proprietary tool to locate and verify SQL injection flaws.
Recorded Future, which was the firm that first tied Rasputin to the EAC intrusion, said it had been monitoring the hacker’s activities in the months since then.
The scrutiny has shown Rasputin to be engaged in a systematic and sequential targeting of organizations in specific verticals, Recorded Future said. The targeting appears to be based on the hacker’s perception of the security preparedness of the victim organizations and the potential value of their data.
As with the EAC intrusion, Rasputin has been using a self-developed tool to search targeted websites for potential SQL injection flaws. But he isn’t actively exploiting his latest round of victims, says Levi Gundert, vice president of intelligence and strategy at Recorded Future.
"[Instead] he is selling the access so that other criminals can exploit the access for their own respective monetization strategies," Gundert says.
The tactic is similar to the one Rasputin used after gaining access to the EAC website via an unpatched SQL injection vulnerability. In that incident, Recorded Future found that Rasputin had gathered about 100 access credentials, which included several with administrative privileges that would have allowed an attacker to access or modify data on the EAC network or plant malware on it.
The company identified Rasputin as trying to sell at least one unpatched system flaw to a buyer representing a Middle Eastern government.
Rasputin’s latest list of victims indicates he's targeting organizations that likely have not paid as much attention to addressing low-hanging SQL injection flaws, compared to entities in regulated sectors like healthcare and financial services, Gundert says. "I think what you see in these attacks, is industry vertical-targeting where there may be less resources for monitoring or prevention via code auditing."
SQL injection flaws have been well-understood and researched for a long time and are relatively easily addressed via proper coding practices. Yet they have continued to pose major problems for organizations across industry sectors. A slew of free tools like Havij, Ashiyane SQL Scanner, and SQL Inject Me, have made it trivially easy for virtually anyone to find exploitable SQL injection errors.
"These attacks are easy to perform, but potentially expensive to proactively remediate because code rewriting—especially in business critical applications—can be time consuming and require multiple human and technical resources," Gundert says.
Regulations like PCI, HIPAA, and Sarbanex-Oxley have pushed financial and healthcare companies to better secure their code against the error. Even so, "there is a lack of economic incentives across all verticals to compel more investment in security fundamentals like code auditing," he says.
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio