United Nations' computers breached by hackers earlier in 2021

The earliest known date the hackers obtained access to the UN's systems was April 5.
The earliest known date the hackers obtained access to the UN's systems was April 5.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Hackers breached the United Nations' computer networks earlier this year and made off with a trove of data that could be used to target agencies within the intergovernmental organisation.

The hackers' method for gaining access to the UN network appears to be unsophisticated: They likely got in using the stolen username and password of a UN employee purchased off the Dark Web.

The credentials belonged to an account on the UN's proprietary project management software, called Umoja. From there, the hackers were able to gain deeper access to the UN's network, according to cyber-security firm Resecurity, which discovered the breach.

The earliest known date the hackers obtained access to the UN's systems was April 5, and they were still active on the network as at Aug. 7.

"Organisations like the UN are a high-value target for cyber-espionage activity," Resecurity chief executive officer Gene Yoo said. "The actor conducted the intrusion with the goal of compromising large numbers of users within the UN network for further long-term intelligence gathering."

The attack marks another high-profile intrusion in a year when hackers have grown more brazen.

JBS, the world's largest meat producer, was hit by a cyber attack this year that forced the shutdown of United States plants. Colonial Pipeline, operator of the biggest US gasoline pipeline, also was compromised by a so-called ransomware attack.

Unlike those hacks, whoever breached the UN did not damage any of its systems, but instead collected information about the UN's computer networks. Resecurity informed the UN of its latest breach earlier this year and worked with the organisation's security team to identify the scope of the attack.

UN officials informed Resecurity that the hack was limited to reconnaissance, and that the hackers had only taken screenshots while inside the network.

When Resecurity's Mr Yoo provided proof to the UN of stolen data, the UN stopped corresponding with the company, he said.

The Umoja account used by the hackers was not enabled with two-factor authentication, a basic security feature. According to an announcement on Umoja's website in July, the system migrated to Microsoft's Azure, which provides multi-factor authentication. That move "reduces the risk of cyber-security breaches", an announcement on Umoja's site read.

The UN did not respond to requests for comment.

The UN and its agencies have been targeted by hackers before. In 2018, Dutch and British law enforcement foiled a Russian cyber attack against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as it probed the use of a deadly nerve agent on British soil.

Then, in August 2019, the UN's "core infrastructure" was compromised in a cyber attack that targeted a known vulnerability in Microsoft's SharePoint platform, according to a report by Forbes. The breach was not publicly disclosed until it was reported by the New Humanitarian news organisation.

In the latest breach, hackers sought to map out more information about how the UN's computer networks are built, and to compromise the accounts of 53 UN accounts, Resecurity said. Bloomberg News was not able to identify the hackers or their purpose in breaching the UN.

Bloomberg News did review Dark Web ads where users across at least three marketplaces were selling these same credentials as recently as July 5. The reconnaissance carried out by the hackers may enable them to conduct future hacks or to sell the information to other groups that may seek to breach the UN.

"Traditionally, organisations like the United Nations have been targeted by nation state actors, but as cyber criminals are finding ways to more effectively monetise stolen data, and as access to these organisations is more frequently available for sale by initial access brokers, we expect to see them increasingly targeted and infiltrated by cyber criminals," said Mr Allan Liska, a senior threat analyst at Recorded Future.

Mr Liska said he had seen the usernames and passwords for UN employees for sale on the Dark Web.

The credentials have been offered by multiple Russian-speaking cyber criminals, according to Mr Mark Arena, chief executive officer of security-intelligence firm Intel 471. The UN credentials were being sold as part of a patch of dozens of usernames and passwords to various organisations for just US$1,000 (S$1,340).

"Since the start of 2021, we've seen multiple financially motivated cyber criminals selling access to the Umoja system run by the UN," Mr Arena said.

"These actors were selling a broad range of compromised credentials from a multitude of organisations at the same time. In a number of previous occasions, we've seen compromised credentials being sold to other cyber criminals, who have undertaken follow up intrusion activity within these organisations."