HACKERS targeted Cyprus’ diplomats in exposing thousands of EU diplomatic cables, by using a ‘run-of-the-mill’ phishing campaign the New York Times has reported, as details about the EU’s handling of various international issues surfaced.
According to the CEO of the American security company Area 1, Oren Falkowitz, the phishing campaign pierced through the island’s systems and obtained passwords need to communicate with the EU’s entire database of exchanges.
“People talk about sophisticated hackers, but there was nothing really sophisticated about this,” Mr. Falkowitz said. After getting into the Cyprus system, the hackers had access to passwords that were needed to connect to the European Union’s entire database of exchanges.
Area 1’s investigators said they believed the hackers worked for the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army, part of an organisation that emerged from the Chinese signals intelligence agency that was once called 3PLA.
“After over a decade of experience countering Chinese cyberoperations and extensive technical analysis, there is no doubt this campaign is connected to the Chinese government,” said Blake Darche, one of the Area 1’s experts.
After burrowing into the European network, called COREU (or Courtesy), the hackers had the run of communications linking the European Union’s 28 countries, on topics ranging from trade and tariffs to terrorism to summaries of summit meetings, from the vital to the insignificant.
In a statement, the EU said it “is aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and is actively investigating the issue.”
However, the EU did not further comment on the issue saying that it does not discuss allegations or matters relating to operational security.
The European cables are reminiscent of the WikiLeaks publication of 250,000 State Department cables in 2010. But they are not as extensive and consist of low-level classified documents that were labelled limited and restricted.
Many of the reports were the ordinary business of diplomacy — weekly reports from missions from places like Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Russia, China, Ukraine and Washington, and included descriptions of conversations with leaders and other diplomats or visits to non-European countries.
European officials said they are trying to overhaul their networks — an expensive process in which technological improvements usually cannot protect against flawed human judgment. They insisted that confidential, secret and “tres secret” material is handled differently than the cables seized by the hackers and noted that a new system, known as EC3IS, is being developed to handle the more sensitive documents that are shared among the diplomats.
For communications in capitals like Moscow and Beijing, yet another network, known as Zeus, is being installed for delegations of member states.