Hackers infiltrated the networks of at least ten cellular telcos around the world, and remained hidden for years, as part of a long-running tightly targeted surveillance operation, The Register has learned. This espionage campaign is still ongoing, it is claimed.
Cyber-spy hunters at US security firm Cybereason told El Reg on Monday the miscreants responsible for the intrusions were, judging from their malware and skills, either part of the infamous Beijing-backed hacking crew dubbed APT10 – or someone operating just like them, perhaps deliberately so.
Whoever it was, the snoops apparently spent the past two or more years inside ten-plus cellphone networks dotted around the planet. In some cases, we’re told, the hackers were able to deploy their own VPN services on the telcos’ infrastructure to gain quick, persistent, and direct access to the carriers rather than hop through compromised internal servers and workstations. These VPN services were not detected by the telcos’ IT staff.
The undetected VPN deployments underscore just how deeply the hacker crew was able to drill into the unnamed telcos and compromise pretty much everything needed to get the job done. The gang sought access to hundreds of gigabytes of phone records, text messages, device and customer metadata, and location data on hundreds of millions of subscribers.
This was all done, we’re told, to spy on and gather the whereabouts of some 20 to 30 high-value targets – think politicians, diplomats, and foreign agents. The hackers and their masters would thus be able to figure out who their targets have talked to, where they work and stay, and so on.
To cover their tracks, the hackers would have long periods of inactivity.
“They come in, they do something, and they disappear for one to three months,” said Serper. “Then they come in again, disappear, and so forth.”