Sophisticated hackers infiltrated U.N. offices in Geneva and Vienna last year in an apparent espionage operation, and their identity and the extent of the data they obtained is unknown.
An internal confidential document from the United Nations, leaked to the New Humanitarian and seen by the Associated Press, says dozens of servers were compromised, including at the U.N. human rights office, which collects sensitive data and has often been a lightning rod of criticism from autocratic governments for exposing rights abuses.
Asked about the report, one U.N. official told the AP that the hack appeared “sophisticated” and that the extent of the damage remained unclear, especially in terms of personal, secret or compromising information that may have been stolen. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the episode, said systems have since been reinforced.
The skill level was so high it is possible a state-backed actor might have been behind it, the official said.
“It’s as if someone were walking in the sand, and swept up their tracks with a broom afterward,” the official said. “There’s not even a trace of a cleanup.”
The leaked Sept. 20 report says logs that would have betrayed the hackers’ activities inside the U.N. networks — what was accessed and what may have been siphoned out — were “cleared.” It also shows that among accounts known to have been accessed were those of domain administrators — who by default have master access to all user accounts in their purview.
“Sadly ... still counting our casualties,” the report says.
Jake Williams, CEO of the cybersecurity firm Rendition Infosec and a former U.S. government hacker, said the fact that the hackers cleared the network logs indicates they were not top flight. The most skilled hackers — including U.S., Russian and Chinese agents — can cover their tracks by editing those logs instead of clearing them.
“The intrusion definitely looks like espionage,” said Williams, noting that the active directory component — where all users’ permissions are managed — from three different domains were compromised: those of United Nations offices in Geneva and Vienna and of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“This, coupled with the relatively small number of infected machines, is highly suggestive of espionage,” he said after viewing the report. “The attackers have a goal in mind and are deploying malware to machines that they believe serve some purpose for them.”
Any number of intelligence agencies from around the globe are likely interested in infiltrating the U.N., Williams said.
The hack was not severe at the U.N. human rights office, said its spokesman, Rupert Colville.
“We face daily attempts to get into our computer systems,” Colville said. “This time, they managed, but it did not get very far. Nothing confidential was compromised.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the attack “resulted in a compromise of core infrastructure components” and was “determined to be serious.” The earliest detected activity related to the intrusion occurred in July and it was detected in August, he said in response to emailed questions.
He said the world body does not have enough information to determine who might have been behind the incursion, but added, “The methods and tools used in the attack indicate a high level of resource, capability and determination.
“The damage related to this specific attack has been contained, and additional mitigation measures implemented,” Dujarric wrote. “Nevertheless the threat of future attacks continues, and the United Nations Secretariat detects and responds to multiple attacks of various levels of sophistication on a daily basis.”
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 Geneva and Vienna offices. Three of the “compromised” servers belonged to human rights agency, 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.
The report says a flaw in Microsoft’s SharePoint software was exploited by the hackers to infiltrate the networks but that the type of malware used was not known, nor had technicians identified the command and control servers on the internet used to exfiltrate information. Nor was it known what mechanism was used by the hackers to maintain their presence on the infiltrated networks.