Here’s hoping our new govt gets the message about intelligence from GSCB’s role in exposing Russian hackers

Three cheers for the GSCB.  It has been lauded by the US FBI and intelligence agencies for its role in uncovering Russian covert intelligence activities around the world.

The Minister in Charge of the intelligence services, Andrew Little, expressed surprise we had been named – but this is a wake-up call to the new government, which is woefully short of experience and hard realities in the wider world – and a reflection on how much NZ services are valued by allies.

This is the story: On October 15 a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh returned an indictment charging six computer hackers, all of whom were residents and nationals of the Russian Federation (Russia) and officers in Unit 74455 of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

The charges were announced by Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers; FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich; U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Scott W. Brady; and Special Agents in Charge of the FBI’s Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Pittsburgh Field Offices, J.C. “Chris” Hacker, Melissa R. Godbold, and Michael A. Christman, respectively.

The GCSB played a key role in intercepting communications within the group. The GRU hackers and their co-conspirators engaged in computer intrusions and attacks intended to support Russian government efforts to undermine, retaliate against, or otherwise destabilise

 (1) Ukraine;

(2) Georgia;

(3) elections in France;

(4) efforts to hold Russia accountable for its use of a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok, on foreign soil; and

(5) the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games after Russian athletes were banned from participating under their nation’s flag, as a consequence of  the Russian government-sponsored doping of sports people/

The computer attacks used some of the world’s most destructive malware to date, including:

(1) KillDisk and Industroyer, which each caused blackouts in Ukraine;

(2) NotPetya, which caused nearly $1 billion in losses to the three victims identified in the indictment alone; and

(3) Olympic Destroyer, which disrupted thousands of computers used to support the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The indictment charges the defendants with conspiracy, computer hacking, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and false registration of a domain name.

According to the indictment, beginning in or around November 2015 and continuing until at least in or around October 2019, the defendants and their co-conspirators deployed destructive malware and took other disruptive actions, for the strategic benefit of Russia, through unauthorised access  to victim computers (hacking).

As alleged, the conspiracy was responsible for the following destructive, disruptive, or otherwise destabilising computer intrusions and attacks:

  • Ukrainian Government & Critical Infrastructure: December 2015 through December 2016 destructive malware attacks against Ukraine’s electric power grid, Ministry of Finance and State Treasury Service, using malware known as BlackEnergy, Industroyer, and KillDisk;
  • French Elections: April and May 2017 spearphishing campaigns and related hack-and-leak efforts targeting French President Macron’s “La République En Marche!” (En Marche!) political party, French politicians, and local French governments prior to the 2017 French elections;
  • Worldwide Businesses and Critical Infrastructure (NotPetya): June 27, 2017 destructive malware attacks that infected computers worldwide using malware known as NotPetya, including hospitals and other medical facilities in the Heritage Valley Health System (Heritage Valley) in the Western District of Pennsylvania; a FedEx Corporation subsidiary, TNT Express B.V.; and a large U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturer, which together suffered nearly $1 billion in losses from the attacks;
  • PyeongChang Winter Olympics Hosts, Participants, Partners, and Attendees: December 2017 through February 2018 spearphishing campaigns and malicious mobile applications targeting South Korean citizens and officials, Olympic athletes, partners, and visitors, and International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials;
  • PyeongChang Winter Olympics IT Systems (Olympic Destroyer): December 2017 through February 2018 intrusions into computers supporting the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, which culminated in the Feb. 9, 2018, destructive malware attack against the opening ceremony, using malware known as Olympic Destroyer;
  • Novichok Poisoning Investigations: April 2018 spearphishing campaigns targeting investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) into the nerve agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and several U.K. citizens; and
  • Georgian Companies and Government Entities: a 2018 spearphishing campaign targeting a major media company, 2019 efforts to compromise the network of Parliament, and a wide-ranging website defacement campaign in 2019.

Cybersecurity researchers have tracked the conspirators and their malicious activity using the labels “Sandworm Team,” “Telebots,” “Voodoo Bear,” and “Iron Viking.”

While the NZ intelligence community quietly celebrates, this success is also a warning to the new government – some of whose   members eschew the intelligence world – that NZ is a real partner in a global system which   is  confronted  by nasty and anti-democratic challenges.

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