A new and highly skilled team of hackers spying on dozens of government targets is never welcome news, but one team of cyberspies has pulled off that scale of espionage with a rare and troubling trick, exploiting a weak link in the internet's cybersecurity that experts have warned about for years. It is DNS hijacking, a technique that meddles with the fundamental address book of the internet.
Researchers at Cisco's Talos security division has revealed that a hacker group calling itself Sea Turtle carried out a broad campaign of espionage via DNS hijacking, hitting 40 different organisations. In the process, they went so far as to compromise multiple country-code top-level domains—the suffixes like .co.uk or .ru that end a foreign web address—putting all the traffic of every domain in multiple countries at risk.
The hackers attacked telecoms, internet service providers and domain registrars responsible for implementing the domain name system. But the majority of the victims and the ultimate targets, Cisco believes, were a collection of mostly governmental organisations, including ministries of foreign affairs, intelligence agencies, military targets, and energy-related groups, all based in the Middle East and North Africa. By corrupting the internet's directory system, hackers were able to silently use "man in the middle" attacks to intercept all internet data from email to web traffic sent to those victim organisations.
Cisco Talos researcher Craig Williams says the Sea Turtle campaign is disturbing not only because it represents a series of brazen cyberspying operations but also because it calls into question that basic trust model of the internet.
"When you're on your computer and visit your bank, you assume DNS servers will tell you the truth," Williams says. "Unfortunately what we're seeing is that, from a regional perspective, someone has broken that trust. You go to a website and it turns out you don’t have any guarantee of who you’re talking to."
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