An internal confidential document from the United Nations, leaked to The New Humanitarian and seen by The Associated Press, says that dozens of servers were “compromised” at offices in Geneva and Vienna.
Those include the U.N. human rights office, which has often been a lightning rod of criticism from autocratic governments for its calling-out of rights abuses.
One U.N. official told the AP that the hack, which was first detected over the summer, appeared “sophisticated” and that the extent of the damage remains unclear, especially in terms of personal, secret or compromising information that may have been stolen. The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the episode, said systems have since been reinforced.
The level of sophistication was so high that it was possible a state-backed actor might have been behind it, the official said.
There were conflicting accounts about the significance of the incursion.
“We were hacked,” U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville. “We face daily attempts to get into our computer systems. This time, they managed, but it did not get very far. Nothing confidential was compromised.”
The breach, at least at the human rights office, appears to have been limited to the so-called active directory – including a staff list and details like e-mail addresses – but not access to passwords. No domain administration’s account was compromised, officials said.
The United Nations headquarters in New York as well as the U.N.’s sprawling Palais des Nations compound in Geneva, its European headquarters, did not immediately respond to questions from the AP about the incident.
Sensitive information at the human rights office about possible war criminals in the Syrian conflict and perpetrators of Myanmar’s crackdown against Rohingya Muslims were not compromised, because it is held in extremely secure conditions, the official said.
The internal document from the U.N. Office of Information and Technology said 42 servers were “compromised” and another 25 were deemed “suspicious,” nearly all at the sprawling United Nations offices in Geneva and Vienna. Three of the “compromised” servers belonged to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which is located across town from the main U.N. office in Geneva, and two were used by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe.
Technicians at the United Nations office in Geneva, the world body’s European hub, on at least two occasions worked through weekends in recent months to isolate the local U.N. data center from the Internet, re-write passwords and ensure the systems were clean.
The hack comes amid rising concerns about computer or mobile phone vulnerabilities, both for large organizations like governments and the U.N. as well as for individuals and businesses.
They are downplaying the importance of an Active Directory server – it contains all the users and their details, so it’s a pretty big deal.