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NY Times, Twitter Hit in Syrian Electronic Army DNS Attacks

NY Times, Twitter Hit in Syrian Electronic Army DNS Attacks
August 28, 2013 10:24AM

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These attacks are not the same as having actual servers managed and run by the New York Times hacked. "The fundamental gap in security appears to have been around a DNS reseller account, which was used to gain access to the DNS records hosted out of Melbourne," said Kevin O'Brien, enterprise solution architect at CloudLock.

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The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) is at it again. The hactivist group targeted nine websites, including the New York Times, Twitter and Twimg, Twitter's image service. Redirects to servers the hackers controlled aimed to launch drive-by malware attacks on victims.

The SEA's high-profile media hacking spree began earlier this year. Among the victims of the group that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are The Financial Times, The Guardian, and the Associated Press. Most recently, the Washington Post got hit. The common running theme: the papers reported stories SEA didn't like.

No Hacking Here

We asked Ken Pickering, the director of engineering at CORE Security, for his reaction to the attacks. He told us saying the Times was directly hacked is a bit of a fallacy.

"Realistically, their DNS provider was hacked. The end result is the same: The website being unavailable -- or serving up malware -- but there's not a whole lot the New York Times can do if their third party DNS provider was hacked," Pickering said.

"This points out one of the weaknesses of Internet architecture: blind trust on a DNS architecture. If they report the server IP has changed for a domain, most of us blindly trust going to that new IP," he added. "The system is only really failsafe if DNS providers are unhackable, which obviously isn't the case. And this is the resultant outcome: A story that the New York Times was hacked with very little they could do aside from picking a better service provider."

An IT Security Object Lesson

We also asked Kevin O'Brien, enterprise solution architect at CloudLock, for his views on the latest in a growing string of attacks against mainstream media. He told these attacks are not the same as having actual servers managed and run by the New York Times hacked. "The fundamental gap in security appears to have been around a DNS reseller account, which was used to gain access to the DNS records hosted out of Melbourne," he said.

If anything, O'Brien noted, these attacks are one more example of why companies need to implement properly layered defense strategies. Again, the issue with the DNS compromise was that a single point of failure -- the domain record company hacked, in this case -- resulted in "real-world" damages.

"Any time a single point of failure exists, one should assume that it will be the target of concerted effort on the behalf of criminals who wish to exploit, destroy, or compromise an organization," Brien said. "The coming days will tell for certain, but it's probably safe to assume that the Gray Lady's staff had not considered whether or not their DNS host was properly auditing and securing their environment. In turn, the DNS host was probably not doing the same for their resellers."

As O'Brien sees it, there is an object lesson in these attacks: As connections and access grows, the threat radius for an organization expands with it. If there is any consolation to be had, he said, it is that this is an incredibly unsophisticated form of attack.

"There is a high likelihood that the reseller account in question was compromised through either social engineering or poor password policy," he explained, "both of which can be addressed through end-user training and more sophisticated end-point security systems."

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