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How Hacktivists Have Targeted Major Media Outlets

From the Washington Post and CNN to the Twitter feeds of the Associated Press and Reuters, hacktivists have news outlets--and their social-media presence--in their crosshairs
Global conflicts have increasingly led tech-savvy protesters and loyalists to express their views online by hacking, and while many groups have focused on attempting to damage or deface government websites, others have focused on getting the word out by attacking the media.

In the latest attacks, the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, compromised third-party link network Outbrain, allowing the group to change some of the third-party content on at least four major news sites, including The Washington Post, Time, and CNN. Like other hacktivists, the SEA is looking to get their message out and media sites have the biggest payoff, says Jason Lancaster, senior intelligence analyst with HP Security Research.

"They are going after media, because they want to propagate their message," Lancaster says. "When they attack media organizations, even if they are not successful, their message is, in a way, still being propagated."

The attacks are not the first time the political hackers have taken a stand against media firms. In 2001, the Honkers Union of China defaced a number of sites, including news organization United Press International, protesting a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet that resulted in the death of the pilot, Wang Wei. Last year, hackers claiming a link to Anonymous defaced and attacked websites in China to protest the country's censorship policies.

In the last three months, the Syrian Electronic Army has compromised numerous Twitter accounts, including those used by major news services, such as the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reuters. In addition, the group has hacked a variety of other news organizations, reportedly including National Public Radio (NPR), the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), and Al Jazeera.

First coming to light in 2011, the Syrian Electronic Army has not been positively linked to the Assad regime, but has taken a pro-Assad stance and criticized Western media for "fabricated and false news" about what is happening in Syria, according to Hewlett-Packard's analysis of the group.

The SEA has apparently refrained from attacking for financial gain, and instead focuses on gaining access to specific sites and posting fictitious stories supporting their agenda, says Scott Hazdra, principal security consultant for Neohapsis.

"Their mission is to post messages, deface a site, and cause disruption in such a way so that there is reporting on what they have done," Hazdra says. "That will draw attention to their agenda."

Phishing the media
In most cases, the hacktivists have used straightforward phishing techniques, sending tailored e-mail messages to a small number of media employees.

In the case of the hack of satirical news site The Onion, the e-mail read: "Dear The Onion Journalists: Please read the following article for its importance: [link] Thanks & Regards." The link in the e-mail message lead to a malicious site that requested the user's Google Apps credentials before redirecting them to their Gmail account.

"Leveraging relatively simple methods like phishing isn't new, but it is fairly prevalent," says Ted Ross, director of field intelligence for HP Security Research. "It is still pretty easy to target and get an assistant or non-technical staff to click on a link and then get their credentials."

The same scenario played out in the hack of third-party online services Social Flow and Outbrain. Phishing e-mails landed in the inboxes of a number of employees of Social Flow, which helps companies manage social media campaigns. While in-house employees were quickly warned of the threat, the alert was slow in getting out to remote workers, the company stated in a post-mortem on the incident.

"Unfortunately, an employee working outside the office clicked on the link and entered an email address and password," Social Flow stated on its blog. "That person had publishing access to our Twitter account, Facebook account, and website."

[Breach at third-party service enables Syrian cyberattackers to gain access to Washington Post, Time, and CNN. See Washington Post Hacked By Syrian Electronic Army.]

Similarly, Reuters, Associated Press, and Outbrain have all blamed phishing campaigns for the compromise of their systems and accounts. Outbrain fingered a message that appeared to come from the CEO, while an AP employee said that "some of us received an impressively disguised phishing email."

Fewer third parties, more education
The breaches have demonstrated that many of the third-party widgets, plugins, and Web services used by media companies come with inherent risks. Publishers' pages are a mashup of a variety of third-party content, making the security of any displayed page reliant on the weakest link in the Web supply chain, says Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of Veracode, an application-security firm.

"These websites pull ads and widgets from all over the place," he says. "People have no idea where all this data is coming from. I don't think a lot of people have thought about this threat model."

Veracode itself analyzed the risks when considering a third-party widget to allow users to easily post content from Veracode sites to their Twitter feeds, Facebook walls, and other social-media sites. The company's analysis found that the software service communicated with a wide variety of destinations, including sites in Russia, he says.

"We said, 'Wait a minute, what is this component doing?' It was pulling code from a bunch of other sites," he says. "We decided that we couldn't know what was going on, and so we created the functionality ourselves."

Triaging the threat from third-party widgets is not enough. Companies also have to minimize their attack surface area, and a large source of exposure is uneducated employees willing to click on phishing links. While attackers will generally be able to craft a message to fool just about anyone, companies should raise the bar by teaching employees not to click on links from unknown sources, says Neohapsis's Hazdra.

"Every organization is vulnerable to a spearphishing attacks, because even people who are trained can get tricked," he says. "But there are a wide variety of controls that can make it harder for the attacker and minimize damage when they succeed."

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