Evidence on hacks of the US State Election Systems suggest Russian origin

Pierluigi Paganini September 05, 2016

Researchers have found links between the attacks on US state election systems and campaigns managed by alleged Russian state-sponsored hackers.

Security experts at threat intelligence firm ThreatConnect have conducted an analysis on the IP addresses listed in the flash alert issued in August by the FBI that warned about two cyber attacks against the election systems in two U.S. states.

The FBI confirmed that foreign hackers have penetrated state election systems, federal experts have uncovered evidence of the intrusion. The hackers violated the databases of two state election systems for this reason the FBI issued the flash alert to election officials across the country inviting them to adopt security measured to protect their computer systems.

“The FBI warning, contained in a “flash” alert from the FBI’s Cyber Division, a copy of which was obtained by Yahoo News, comes amid heightened concerns among U.S. intelligence officials about the possibility ofcyberintrusions, potentially by Russian state-sponsored hackers, aimed at disrupting the November elections.”reported Yahoo News that obtained a copy of the “flash” alert.

FBI alert state election systems

The FBI alert contains technical details about the attacks, including the IP addresses involved in the both attacks that have been analyzed by ThreatConnect.

The TTPs adopted by attackers suggest the involvement of Russian hackers, one of the IP addresses included in the alert has surfaced before in Russian criminal underground hacker forums. Some of the IPs are owned by the FortUnix Networks firm that was known to the security experts because its infrastructure was exploited by attackers that hit in December the Ukrainian power grid with the Black Energy malware.

The experts revealed that one of them was used in the past in spear-phishing campaigns that targeted the Justice and Development (AK) Party in Turkey, the Freedom Party in Germany, and the Ukrainian Parliament.

“However, as we looked into the 5.149.249[.]172 IP address within the FBI Flash Bulletin, we uncovered a spear phishing campaign targeting Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, Ukrainian Parliament, and German Freedom Party figures from March – August 2016 that fits a known Russian targeting focus and modus operandi.” states the analysis published by ThreatConnect”As we explored malicious activity in the IP ranges around 5.149.249[.]172 we found additional linkages back to activity that could be evidence of Russian advanced persistent threat (APT) activity. This connection around the 5.149.249[.]172 activity is more suggestive of state-backed rather than criminally motivated activity, although we are unable to assess which actor or group might be behind the attacks based on the current evidence.”

The phishing campaigns mentioned in the analysis exploited an open source phishing framework named Phishing Frenzy, the security experts managed to hack into the control panel of the system used by the phishers and discovered a total of 113 emails written in Ukrainian, Turkish, German and English.

Out of the 113 total emails, 48 of them are malicious messages targeting Gmail accounts, while the rest were specifically designed to look like an email from an organization of interest for the victims.

16 of the malicious email used to target AK Party officials were also included in the WikiLeaks dump of nearly 300,000 AK Party emails disclosed in July.

The experts from ThreatConnect discovered some connections to a Russian threat actor, alleged linked to the Government of Moscow. One of the domains hosting the phishing content was registered with an email address associated with a domain known to be used by the infamous APT28 group (aka Fancy Bear, Pawn Storm, Sednit, Sofacy).

Below the evidence collected by experts at ThreatConnect that suggest the involvement of the Russian Government, “but do not prove” it:

  • Six of the eight IP addresses belong to a Russian-owned hosting service
  • 5.149.249[.]172 hosted a Russian cybercrime market from January – May 2015
  • Other IPs belonging to FortUnix infrastructure – the same provider as 5.149.249[.]172 – were seen in 2015 Ukraine power grid and news media denial of service attacks
  • The Acunetix and SQL injection attack method closely parallel the video from a purported Anonymous Poland (@anpoland) handle describing how they obtained athlete records from Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

US Election Systems hack analysis

Enjoy the analysis.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –state election systems, state-sponsored hacking)

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