It can easily be mistaken for the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster: a shadowy group of hackers manage to spy on military, political and domestic targets, engage in false flag operations, and successfully sway public opinion.
Pawn Storm is an organised group of hackers that have launched extensive and far reaching cyber-attacks that have proved to be growing in ambition, and gumption. Trend Micro has traced their activity back to 2004, when they first emerged on their radar.
The cyber security group has released a paper that examines Pawn Storm’s operations within the last two years. The data includes targets, campaigns, false flag operations and details of specific attacks. The paper also provides some guidelines on how to defend against this increasingly relevant threat, as well as solutions that can protect organizations from Pawn Storm’s tactics.
The group – also known as Sednit, Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM – doesn’t appear to be motivated by financial gain. Instead, it’s foreign and domestic espionage, as well as the calculated manipulation of public opinion that motivate them. Their targets include the defense industry, military forces, news media and politicians.
“It’s not just their espionage activities that are a great cause of concern,” says Anvee Alderton, channel manager at Trend Micro Southern Africa. “In 2016, Pawn Storm made an attempt to manipulate public opinion and elections, and made contact with mainstream media with a measure of success.
The fall out of these attacks are now reverberating throughout various industries worldwide. The average citizen is also not immune from their influence. Pawn Storm is engaged in steering people’s opinions with regard to both foreign and domestic affairs. The fear of copycat groups rising up as a result of their activities is very real.”
They have certainly made the news. Their hack of the Democratic National Convention received extensive news coverage, as did their theft of confidential medical records from WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). This information was released in carefully timed manner specifically to harm their targets.
Over a two-year period, Pawn Storm became experts in influencing events and public opinion. They have attempted to discredit political figures and interfere with media. There have been a great number of incidences of fake news and fake news accusations, which to some extent, can be traced back to malicious groups like Pawn Storm.
Sources in the media have disclosed that they have been offered high-impact information by Pawn Storm, possibly with the intention to generate a certain perception or discredit various individuals. Some news agencies made use of this exclusive material, proving Pawn Storm’s success at manipulating the media.
“The hacker group has undoubtedly gained much ground in the past two years, becoming bolder and more sophisticated,” Alderton concludes, “It is imperative that organisations guard themselves against this form of cyber-attack. The damages are real and far reaching – and most definitely not the stuff of Hollywood.”