The Washington Post is writing about itself in the wake of an attack by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). The D.C. paper is the latest media outlet targeted by the hacker group sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Post reported that the SEA briefly infiltrated its website and redirected readers of some stories to its own site. The attack lasted about 30 minutes and targeted foreign news stories specifically.
"We've taken defensive measures, and at this time there are no other issues affecting the site," said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, The Post's managing editor-digital, in an article the paper wrote on Thursday afternoon.
Wreaking Havoc on Trust
We asked David Britton, vice president of industry solutions at 41st Parameter, about the attack against the Washington Post. He told us it's another example of how vulnerable the Internet ecosystem is when it comes to trust.
"We have long known that the Internet affords anonymity, but we are also learning more about how that anonymity can actually be used to leverage trusted relationships to wreak havoc," he said. "In a basic phishing scheme, attackers exploit the standing trust between large brand entities and their consumers, to convince them to divulge , either willingly, or by using the phishing emails as a method of distributing malware, which will remotely capture from the consumer's device."
In the case of spear-phishing attacks, Britton said trust is exploited to gain access to individuals with higher sensitivity information and credentials, such as CFOs, controllers, and C-level executives. In the case of a trusted media outlet, attackers are aiming to damage the reputation, and the trust between the media outlet and its readers.
"While these types of 'hacktivist' attacks seem like simple annoyances on the surface, they carry with them an underlying sense of instability in a trusted entity, which is exactly the goal these attackers have in mind," Britton said. He also pointed to the breach of the Associated Press' Twitter account, when a tweet falsely claimed an attack on the White House.
Instilling Fear in the Infrastructure
"The trust between the government and its citizens was leveraged to cause financial damage with a drop in the stock market, based on an assumption that there was national instability," he said. "It is critical that the security community recognize that there are a variety of attackers using cyberspace as the battlefield, with different objectives in mind."
As Britton sees it, cyber-terrorists want to instill fear in the by compromising trusted entities and using their platforms for their own messaging. The purported Chinese-backed attacks seem to be focused on both intellectual theft and on attempts to control the flow of information, he said, while the Eastern European gangs tend to be focused on financial gain.
"In all of these cases, however, the groups are using the Internet, websites, blog sites, message boards, email, SMS messaging, malware to leverage the standing trust between an organization and its consumers, in order to gain access to information or credentials which will allow them to conduct their nefarious business," Britton said.
"As a result, it is more imperative than ever that every agency, business or entity that has a connected presence, find a way to ensure that they have the best possible tools at their disposal to recognize their digital consumers -- so that they can effectively prevent the unauthorized access to their environments," he added.