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The Power of Social Engineering

Researchers expose the scope and scale of the cyber espionage group’s attacks but more importantly their cyber tradecraft. Researchers have observed activity going back seven years targeting government, military, media, and political organizations around the world.  In this report our researchers document the group’s shift to focus on cyber propaganda over the past two years and their 400 percent increase in targeting activity in 2016 alone.

The history of Pawn Storm 

Our researchers have traced Pawn Storm as far back as 2004, however our first report (and the first research published on them) was in 2014. Since then it has become well established that the group targets any global organization perceived at odds with Russian geopolitical interests. The group has managed to compromise their targets across the globe with intelligent and calculated credentialed phishing campaigns.

While the attacks around the U.S. election made substantial headlines, many other organizations were successfully targeted through the last three years:

In 2016, the Pawn Storm group continued its cyber-espionage work however with two stark departures in tactics. They continued to harvest credentials of high value targets at a faster pace and determination but they pivoted to cyber propaganda. Based on the phishing domains created, political parties and media outlets dominated their focus.

Date Organization Phishing Domain
03/04/16 Bulgarian Army
02/19/16 MOD Poland
02/24/16 Hurriyet
03/14/16 Anadolu Agency
03/15/16 Anadolu Agency
05/11/16 Hurriyet
06/12/16 Hurriyet
11/14/16 Al Jazeera
11/14/16 Al Jazeera
11/15/16 Al Jazeera
11/16/16 Al Jazeera
11/21/16 Al Jazeera
01/21/16 Prime Minister Turkey
01/12/16 Prime Minister Turkey
02/01/16 Prime Minister Turkey
02/01/16 Parliament Turkey
03/01/16 Democratic Party US
04/01/16 Democratic Party US
04/22/16 CDU
05/06/16 CDU
06/06/16 Democratic Party US
10/20/16 Parliament Montenegro
03/04/16 Tartu University
09/13/16 Baikal State University
08/03/16 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
08/08/16 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
08/08/16 Tribunal Arbitral du Sport (TAS)

Pawn Storm attacks in 2016

The power of phishing

In the first stage of their attacks they rely on credential phishing campaigns anchored by geopolitical events as lures to set the hook on their targets. They successfully tailor emails with proper spelling and grammar to evade spam filters to gain a foothold on targeted systems.

Corporate webmail accounts are targeted as a weak link in a business information supply chain. These accounts can provide confidential data that might prove useful in an attempt to influence public opinion. For example, Pawn Storm stole data from webmail accounts of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2016, leaking it under the pseudonym “Fancy Bear,” to influence public opinion surrounding Russian athletes who were blocked from the summer Olympics. Additionally, webmail accounts may be used as a stepping stone to further infiltrate the target organization.

Long-running campaigns are also maintained against high profile users of free international webmail providers, such as Yahoo! and Gmail. In these attacks, Pawn Storm actors persistently send spear phishing emails to targets – oftentimes multiple a week – trying different approaches until they’re successful. Our researchers have collected thousands of these emails since early 2015.

Credentials lead to espionage

After a target succumbs to the socially engineered phishing lure by clicking a malicious link or opening an infected attachment, the threat actor uses relatively simple first stage malware to map and harvest sensitive data and system information. The Pawn Storm group then silently gathers data on their target’s system for up to a year or more. After learning more about their victim and if they determine that they have compromised a high value target, they may release a second stage of malware to bore deeper. These high value targets are usually a smaller subset of their targeted groups.

Pawn Storm has been known to use this data in two ways:

  1. To further penetrate deeper into targeted networks, even “island hop” sending emails using stolen identities
  2. Release sensitive emails publically to embarrass or defame victim organizations to influence public opinion

What’s next for Pawn Storm?

The group is expected to maintain an increased level of activity in 2017. In fact, our researchers have found and continue to find phishing domains created in March and April connected to political campaigns in France and Germany. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a political organization in Germany, and Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France have both been targeted this year.

The Pawn Storm group appears to be emboldened by media attention. Following the extensive headlines made in 2016 related to their impact on the U.S. election, we expect these attacks to continue. This also directly ties to our 2017 predictions report, which states that cyberpropaganda will become a norm. The report even references the elections in France and Germany where we now see Pawn Storm meddling.

Political organizations like all other organizations should always operate under the assumption that they have been breached.   From the boardroom to the server room, all must work together to protect confidential information. Whether it’s Pawn Storm, hacktivists, cybercriminal groups or an insider threat, intellectual property and confidential data in the wrong hands always ends poorly for any organization.

For more information on Pawn Storm, visit Trend Micro’s complete research hub, where you can find three years of research and data on the group and their affairs.


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