TV5 Monde, Russia and the CyberCaliphate
By Rik Ferguson
Earlier this year, French magazine L’Express published a report linking an attack against TV5 Monde very firmly to the Russian state. The attack, which knocked 11 of its global channels off air for a period of time and resulted in a compromised website and Facebook page, took place back in April.
At the time when the attack took place, a group calling itself CyberCaliphate immediately took responsibility for the hack and went on to publish details purportedly of serving French military personnel involved in the struggle against Islamic State or ISIS. The attribution at the time seems simple and immediate; Islamic Extremist motivated hacktivism.
L’Express approached Trend Micro with certain indicators of compromise which had been shared with 43 media organizations by the Agence nationale de la sécurité des systèmes d’information (ANSSI) in France, with a view to uncovering more about the attacker or the motivations behind the attack. These indicators very definitely evidence an infestation of Sednit (also known as Sofacy) malware, associated with the ongoing targeted attack campaigns by the Pawn Storm operators (also referred to as APT28). What they did not do was to definitively link the stolen information or compromised accounts from the April attack to this Pawn Storm compromise. Neither is it possible to state with certainty that the two are not related. Attribution in online crime is complex, more so when there may be nation state involvement.
Trend Micro’s assessment of the current possibilities with reference to the facts as they stand leaves us with three possibilities:
|1. We could be looking at two entirely unrelated incidents; a Pawn Storm infestation and a separate hacktivist compromise.
2. Perhaps the Pawn Storm group gave attack relevant data to a third party, directly or indirectly to Islamic hacktivists. While possible, this would seem highly unlikely as we have seen Pawn Storm actively targeting Chechen separatists and Islamic extremists in the former Yugoslavia.
3. The Pawn Storm group carried out a highly visible website, Facebook and TV network compromise (which would be extremely out of character) and used it as a false flag operation to lay the blame at the door of Islamic extremists.
While the false flag option is not entirely out of the question, it is at least somewhat out of character of previous operations of the Pawn Storm campaign.
My spider senses right now are tingling on option one. TV5 Monde, a media operation is a target entirely within the remit of the regular Pawn Storm operations and an infestation of Sednit malware. This should perhaps not be a surprise at all. The fact that during the time of this Sednit compromise, they were also targeted by Islamic extremist hacktivists, given the contemporary news and political environment in France, is perhaps also not surprising.
Attribution online is always complex. Sometimes though, things can be entirely as they seem.
Rik Ferguson is actively engaged in research into online threats and the underground economy. He also researches the wider implications of new developments in the Information Technology arena and their impact on security both for consumers and in the enterprise, contributing to product development and marketing plans. Recognized as an industry thought leader and analyst, Rik is regularly quoted by the press on issues surrounding information security, cybercrime and technology futures by trade, national and international media.