CIA covert operations likely behind attacks against APT34 and FSB

Pierluigi Paganini July 16, 2020

CIA orchestrated dozens of hacking operations against targets worldwide, including APT34 and FSB hacks, states an exclusive report from Yahoo News.

In 2018, US President Trump gave to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) more powers to conduct covert offensive cyber operations against hostile threat actors, including Iranian and Russian APT groups and intelligence agencies.

In 2018, Trump signed the Presidential_finding that authorizes covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

According to a report published by Yahoo News reported, the US cyber spies orchestrated at least a dozen operations worldwide.

“The Central Intelligence Agency has conducted a series of covert cyber operations against Iran and other targets since winning a secret victory in 2018 when President Trump signed what amounts to a sweeping authorization for such activities, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter.” states an exclusive report from Yahoo News.

“The secret authorization, known as a presidential finding, gives the spy agency more freedom in both the kinds of operations it conducts and who it targets, undoing many restrictions that had been in place under prior administrations.”

President Trump extended the powers granted to the CIA, which was involved in is offensive cyber operations along with surveillance and data collection activities.

The Presidential directive, driven by the National Security Council and crafted by the CIA, focuses on the possibility to carry out covert actions in cyberspace.  

The “very aggressive” finding “gave the agency very specific authorities to really take the fight offensively to a handful of adversarial countries,” said a former U.S. government official.

The US cyber spies targeted hostile countries responsible for aggressive and dangerous conduct in the cyberspace, such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Another official cited in the report explicitly associate these cover operations to the concept of “hacking back.”

“The White House wanted a vehicle to strike back,” said the second former official. “And this was the way to do it.”

“This has been a combination of destructive things – stuff is on fire and exploding – and also public dissemination of data: leaking or things that look like leaking,” a former US government official told Yahoo News.

The Yahoo News report associated several campaigns to the CIA’s covert operations, including:

  • The leak of the tools used by Iranian APT 34 (aka OilRig APT group) on Telegram (March 2019).
  • The leak of the details of 15 million debit cards for customers of three Iranian banks linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Telegram (November 2019).
  • Doxing Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents on Telegram. The CIA cyber spies are suspected to have leaked online personal details of the Iranian agents, including full names, home addresses, phone numbers, and social media profiles.
  • The hack of SyTech, a contractor for the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), and the theft of data about internal projects. According to the Russian media, SyTech has been working with FSB since 2009, in particular, they contributed to several projects for FSB unit 71330 and for fellow contractor Quantum. 

“Although sources wouldn’t say if the CIA was behind those Iran breaches, the finding’s expansion of CIA authorities to target financial institutions, such as an operation to leak bank card data, represents a significant escalation in U.S. cyber operations.” continues the report. “Under prior administrations, senior Treasury Department officials argued successfully against leaking or wiping out banking data, according to former officials, because it could destabilize the global financial system. These were operations the “CIA always knew were an option, but were always a bridge too far,” said a former official.”

CIA officials praised Trump’s decision defining it as “a needed reform” to improve the capabilities of their Agency.

“Regardless, these expansive new cyber powers may become a lasting legacy of the Trump administration, solidifying the greater role the CIA has long coveted in a key arena, and providing the agency with authorities it has desired for three presidential administrations.” concludes the report.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, Trump)

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