APT groups target journalists and media organizations since 2021

Pierluigi Paganini July 17, 2022

Researchers from Proofpoint warn that various APT groups are targeting journalists and media organizations since 2021.

Proofpoint researchers warn that APT groups are regularly targeting and posing as journalists and media organizations since early 2021.

The media sector is a privileged target for this category of attackers due to the access its operators have to sensitive information that could be aligned with the interests of state actors.

The report published by Proofpoint focuses on the activities conducted by some APT actors linked to China, North Korea, Iran, and Turkey.

All the attackers have attempted to compromise the email and social-media accounts of the targets with phishing attacks, in some cases posing as journalists.

“As observed in Proofpoint data, targeting journalists’ work email accounts is by far the most seen locus of attack used by APT actors against this target set. It is important to note that journalists are communicating with external, foreign, and often semi-anonymous parties to gather information. This outreach increases the risk of phishing since journalists, often by necessity, communicate with unknown recipients more so than the average user.” reads the report published by Proofpoint “Verifying or gaining access to such accounts can be an entry point for threat actors for later stage attacks on a media organization’s network or to gain access to desired information.”

The lure emails and messages sent through the different platforms used political focus of interest for the recipients.

The campaigns uncovered by the researchers leveraged a variety of techniques, including malware to establish a foothold on the target network. The attackers also use web beacons for reconnaissance purposes.

Proofpoint tracked the activity of China-lined APT group TA412 (aka Zirconium) targeting US-based journalists. The nation-state actors used phishing emails containing web beacons such as tracking pixels, tracking beacons, and web bugs, embed a hyperlinked non-visible object within the body of an email.

Targeted US-based journalists were involved in inquiries in internal politics and national security and were covering topics aligned with the interests of Bejing.

APT groups

The phishing messages used in the campaigns had subject lines pulled from recent U.S. news articles related to the political topics of interest at the time, including former President Donald Trump activities, the attack on the US Capitol Building, U.S. political movements related to China, and recently, the U.S. position on the ongoing invasion of Russia of Ukraine.

Proofpoint also observed another China-linked APT group, tracked as TA459, in late April 2022 targeting the employees at media organizations. The threat actors used emails containing a malicious Royal Road RTF attachment (acknowledge.doc) that, if opened, would drop the Chinoxy backdoor.

Web beacons, commonly referred to as tracking pixels, tracking beacons, or web bugs, embed a hyperlinked non-visible object within the body of an email that, when enabled, attempts to retrieve a benign image file from an actor-controlled server.

The experts also observed the North Korea-linked TA404 group, aka Lazarus, targeting a U.S.-based media organization in early 2022. The attackers used phishing messages with job offers as lures.

“This campaign aligned with that expected behavior. It started with reconnaissance phishing that used URLs customized to each recipient. The URLs impersonated a job posting with landing pages designed to look like a branded job posting site. If a victim interacted with the URL, which contained a unique target ID, the server resolving the domain would have received confirmation that the email was delivered, and the intended target had interacted with it.” continues the report. “This request also provides identifying information about the computer, or device, allowing the host to keep track of the intended target.”

Researchers also observed Turkish threat actors tracked as TA482 that regularly conducted credential harvesting campaigns against social media accounts of mostly US-based journalists and media organizations.

The report also details the activity of Iran-linked APTs, such as TA453, that targeted journalists and newspapers. Threat actors often posed as journalists themselves to spy on targets and harvest their credentials.

“Targeting journalists and media organizations is not novel. APT actors, regardless of their state affiliation, have and will likely always have a mandate to target journalists and media organizations and will use associated personas to further their objectives and collection priorities. From intentions to gather sensitive information to attempts to manipulate public perceptions, the knowledge and access that a journalist or news outlet can provide is unique in the public space.” concludes the report. “Targeting the media sector also lowers the risk of failure or discovery to an APT actor than going after other, more hardened targets of interest, such as government entities.”

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, journalists)

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