10:30 ET, 24 March 2014

The intelligence firm IntelCrawler has published a report on the activities of the Syrian Electronic Army. Are they hacktivists or cyber spies?

IntelCrawler, a cyber-threat intelligence company has recently issued an interesting report on the activities of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), the experts analyzed a series of event since since its first appearance in 2011.

The report titled “Syrian Electronic Army – Hacktivision to Cyber Espionage?” shows that in the beginning Sysrian Electronic Army mission was mainly politically motivated, members of the collective hacked to spread political messages pro Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The group is considered today as the most famous hacking organization in the world.

But over time, the group has increased its popularity, targeting principal enterprises like Microsoft and Twitter, and media agencies like The New York Times. As revealed by the reports the “SEA has evolved into the realm of global espionage, where some of their targets are “C” level executives at technology and media companies, allied military procurement officers, United States defense contractors, and foreign attaches and embassies.” 

Recently the Syrian Electronic Army has leaked documents from US CENTCOM posting online the image related to folders composing the repository of Army Knowledge Online (AKO) which provides web-based enterprise information services to the United States Army.

Too many security analysts mistakenly underestimate the ability of the group that systematically evaded the defense systems of companies and military organizations. The Syrian Electronic Army has used malware and sophisticated hacking tools for its attack, demonstrating that his members are highly skilled hackers. In the the following graph is possible to see a group called “The Pro” (Th3Pr0) which is one of the most aggressive and stealth collective in SEA responsible responsible for the majority of past hacks – the Leader of Special Operations Department of Syrian Electronic Army.

 

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The majority of attacks conducted by the Syrian Electronic Army were spear phishing, as observed in the case of the attack against CNN blogs the hackers are also able to conduct a multi-stage attack to obtain information to use in successive offensives.

“With this type of breach to email contacts and content, the SEA can send trusted emails from one company CEO to another or move laterally within the now compromised organization. Many modern businesses’ spend millions of dollars on network security, protecting against emerging Advanced Persistent Threats (APT’s), new exploits, malicious code, and zero-day vulnerabilities, only to have a key executive compromised via spear phishing and essentially expose potential keys to the kingdom. “

The report issued by IntelCrawler highlighted that high level technical people who have fallen victim of SEA and had their email compromised.

The report includes a detailed timeline of the SEA attacks outlining the techniques adopted by members of SEA, experts at Itelcrawler tried to identify most valuable members of the team describing also tools and tactics they adopted.

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According the experts today SEA is mainly operating for cyber espionage purpose, it is interested to acquire sensitive documents.

“We’ve laid out the hacktivision attacks chronologically and then moved to the cyber espionage attacks where the SEA has a specific agenda to acquire sensitive documents. “

It must be considered that Many of the Syrian Electronic Army’s exploits and successes have gone unreported, many security experts believe that the group is managing a huge quantity of information collected during its attacks, and it is likely that many of the announced offensives are part of a diversionary tactic. Experts at IntelCrawler, the Syrian Electronic Army is operating mainly for cyber espionage.

” Besides the known public hacks revealed by the SEA in the press, there is a large cyber espionage campaign targeted against foreign governments and officials from different countries. Their masked hacktivison is initially unveiled with a serious of attacks against Qatar and the Turkish government in the beginning of 2013.  Besides governments, the SEA will target several organizations from various industries with tactics of modern cyber warfare, which may affect geopolitical relations and financial markets.”

Let’s close this post with a series of information I have in an interview with Dan Clements, President IntelCrawler.

IntelCrawler has revealed information about a large cyberespionage campaign by SEA, why did they do it?

They started out as hacktivists but we believe their success attracted more resources and the gleaning of sensitive material on military issues was attractive treasure for all anti-US and anti Israeli middle east countries.

Some of the SEA members were identified by you, what are the next steps with them?

They will continue to hack and hide, but new movements may help Identify them further. The exposure of their tools and tactics gives security companies and governments a heads up to prepare defenses. At some point, their identities will be confirmed and countries will have to decide if they committed war crimes or just criminal intrusions.

 How can you describe SEA tactics and instrument arsenal? 

Besides a very well crafted phishing campaigns, they have access to bullet proof hosts to prepare a second set of attacks, possibly using malware, against already compromised entities.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Editor-In-Chief, CDM)

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