The discovery of a new, sophisticated team of hackers spying on dozens of government targets is never good 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: DNS hijacking, a technique that meddles with the fundamental address book of the internet. Researchers at Cisco’s Talos security division on Wednesday revealed that a hacker group it’s calling Sea Turtle carried out a broad campaign of espionage via DNS hijacking, hitting 40 different organtaizations.
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’ victims include 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 organizations 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 organizations.
[…] Cisco Talos said it couldn’t determine the nationality of the Sea Turtle hackers, and declined to name the specific targets of their spying operations. But it did provide a list of the countries where victims were located: Albania, Armenia, Cypress, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Cisco’s Craig Williams confirmed that Armenia’s .am top-level domain was one ‘of the “handful” that were compromised, but wouldn’t say which of the other countries’ top-level domains were similarly hijacked.