Sophisticated hackers infiltrated U.N. networks in Geneva and Vienna last year in an apparent espionage operation that top officials at the world body kept largely quiet. The hackers’ identity and the extent of the data they obtained are not known.
An internal confidential document from the United Nations, leaked to The New Humanitarian and seen by The Associated Press, says dozens of servers were compromised including at the U.N. human rights office, which collects sensitive data and has often been a lightning rod of criticism from autocratic governments for exposing rights abuses.
Everything indicates knowledge of the breach was closely held, a strategy that information security experts consider misguided because it only multiplies the risks of further data hemorrhaging.
“Staff at large, including me, were not informed,” said Geneva-based Ian Richards, president of the Staff Council at the United Nations. “All we received was an email (on Sept. 26) informing us about infrastructure maintenance work.” The council advocates for the welfare of employees of the world body.
Asked about the intrusion, one U.N. official told the AP it appeared “sophisticated” with the extent of damage unclear, especially in terms of personal, secret or compromising information that may have been stolen. The official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the episode, said systems have since been reinforced.
Given the high skill level, it is possible a state-backed actor was behind it, the official said. “It’s as if someone were walking in the sand, and swept up their tracks with a broom afterward,” the official added. “There’s not even a trace of a clean-up.”
The leaked Sept. 20 report says logs that would have betrayed the hackers’ activities inside the U.N. networks — what was accessed and what may have been siphoned out — were “cleared.” It also shows that among accounts known to have been accessed were those of domain administrators — who by default have master access to all user accounts in their purview.
“Sadly … still counting our casualties,” the report says.
Jake Williams, CEO of the cybersecurity firm Rendition Infosec and a former U.S. government hacker, said the fact that the hackers cleared the network logs indicates they were not top flight. The most skilled hackers — including U.S., Russian and Chinese agents — can cover their tracks by editing those logs instead of clearing them.
“The intrusion definitely looks like espionage,” said Williams, noting that the active directory component — where all users’ permissions are managed — from three different domains were compromised: those of United Nations offices in Geneva and Vienna and of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“This, coupled with the relatively small number of infected machines, is highly suggestive of espionage,” he said after viewing the report. “The attackers have a goal in mind and are deploying malware to machines that they believe serve some purpose for them.”
The U.N. is known to have been trying to patch its myriad IT systems for years, and Williams said any number of intelligence agencies from around the globe are likely interested in infiltrating it.
The hack was not severe at the U.N. human rights office, said its spokesman, Rupert Colville. “We face daily attempts to get into our computer systems,” he said. “This time, they managed, but it did not get very far. Nothing confidential was compromised.”
Clearly concerned that word of the hack could have a chilling effect on people reporting human rights violations to it, the office said in a statement issued later that it wanted to “assure all concerned parties” no sensitive information was compromised.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said earlier Wednesday that attack was “serious,” compromised “core infrastructure components” and was contained. T he earliest activity appeared to have come in July and was detected in August, he said in response to emailed questions. He said the world body does not have enough information to determine the author but added that “the methods and tools used in the attack indicate a high level of resource, capability and determination.”