Questions You Should be Asking the World Around You
-For a moment, it seemed the hackers had slipped up and exposed their identities. It was the summer of 2013, and European investigators were looking into an unprecedented breach of Belgium’s telecommunications infrastructure. They believed they were on the trail of the people responsible. But it would soon become clear that they were chasing ghosts – fake names that had been invented by British spies.
-The hack had targeted Belgacom, Belgium’s largest telecommunications provider, which serves millions of people across Europe. The company’s employees had noticed their email accounts were not receiving messages. On closer inspection, they made a startling discovery: Belgacom’s internal computer systems had been infected with one of the most advanced pieces of malware security experts had ever seen.
-As The Intercept reported in 2014, the hack turned out to have been perpetrated by U.K. surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters, better known as GCHQ. The British spies hacked into Belgacom employees’ computers and then penetrated the company’s internal systems. In an eavesdropping mission called “Operation Socialist,” GCHQ planted bugs inside the most sensitive parts of Belgacom’s networks and tapped into communications processed by the company.
-Once they had the chance to analyze Belgacom’s infected computers, the Belgian authorities realized that they were not dealing with a routine cyberattack. Instead, they assessed that it was an “advanced persistent threat” – a deep-reaching hack perpetrated by a well-funded, highly skilled actor. They had never encountered anything like it before.
-The malware that had infected Belgacom’s systems was disguised as legitimate Microsoft software, the investigators found. It was secretly collecting data from the company’s networks before storing it in compressed containers with several layers of encryption. Assessing the extent of the damage was no easy task. The Belgians could not completely decrypt the files and were therefore unable to identify exactly what had been taken from Belgacom’s computers.
-The addresses were for people who appeared to live in Germany and Denmark. Belgian federal police officers reached out to their counterparts in these countries, sharing the details about their suspects. But there were no records of anyone with the suspects’ names having lived at the addresses. In Germany, the address the hackers had used turned out to be a theater. It quickly became obvious to the investigators that the information was fraudulent. Their prime suspects were people who did not exist.
-Some of the Belgacom investigators initially suspected that the NSA was involved in the hack, partly due to the complexity of the malware. It bore similarities to Stuxnet and Flame, U.S.-created digital viruses designed to sabotage and collect intelligence about Iran’s uranium enrichment program. “This was by far the most sophisticated malware I’ve ever seen,”
–GCHQ may also have sought access to Belgacom’s networks to snoop on NATO and key European institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council. All of those organizations have large offices and thousands of employees in Belgium. And all were Belgacom customers at the time of the intrusion.
-Over the last decade, as the internet and smartphone use have boomed, GCHQ has increasingly turned to hacking to collect intelligence on matters related to economics, geopolitics, and security. Aside from Belgacom, the agency has broken into the computer systems of the oil production organization OPEC; the Netherlands-based security company Gemalto; and organizations that process international cellphone billing records, including Switzerland’s Comfone. The agency has also hacked several governments and companies from countries including Ireland, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Iran, Argentina, Russia, North Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Zimbabwe, according to previously undisclosed lists of some of its targets, contained in the archive of classified documents that The Intercept obtained from Snowden.
Any GCHQ hack that targets foreign organizations must be approved at a senior level within the agency, and particularly sensitive operations sometimes require the sign-off of the government’s foreign secretary, who at the time of the Belgacom intrusion was William Hague.
https:// theintercept .com/2018/02/17/gchq-belgacom-investigation-europe-hack/
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