In an unprecedented move, the country of Georgia—irritated by persistent cyber-spying attacks—has published two photos of an alleged Russia-based hacker who, the Georgians claim waged a persistent, months-long campaign that stole confidential information from Georgian government ministries, parliament, banks, and non-governmental organizations.
In one of the photos, a dark-haired, bearded user peers into his computer’s screen, perhaps puzzled at what’s happening. Minutes later, he cuts his computer’s connection, realizing he has been discovered.
The photos are contained in a report that alleges the intrusions originated from Russia, which launched a five-day military campaign in August 2008 against Georgia that was preceded by a wave of cyberattacks.
The photos in question were taken after investigators with the Georgian government’s Computer Emergency Response Team (Cert.gov.ge) managed to bait the computer user into downloading what he thought was a file containing sensitive information. In fact, it contained its own secret spying program. The mugshot was taken from his own webcam.
Georgia began investigating the cyber spying linked to this man in March 2011 after a file on a computer belonging to a government official was flagged as “suspicious” by a Russian antivirus program called Dr. Web.
The investigation uncovered a sophisticated operation that planted malicious software on numerous Georgian news websites, but only on pages with specific articles that would interest the kinds of people that a hacker would want to target, said Giorgi Gurgenidze, a cyber security specialist with Cert.gov.ge, which handles computer security incidents.
The news stories selected to attract victims had headlines such as “NATO delegation visit in Georgia” and “US-Georgian agreements and meetings,” according to the report, jointly published with Georgia’s Ministry of Justice and the LEPL Data Exchange Agency, which is part of the ministry.
Details of the battle
CERT-Georgia won’t say exactly who that first infected computer belonged to. But what followed is best described as an epic electronic battle between Georgia’s good guys and a highly skilled hacker—or likely team of hackers—based in Russia.
The agency quickly discovered that 300 to 400 computers located in key government agencies were infected and transmitting sensitive documents to drop servers controlled by the person in question. The compromised computers formed a botnet nicknamed “Georbot.”
The malicious software was programmed to search for specific keywords —such as USA, Russia, NATO and CIA—in Microsoft Word documents and PDFs, and was eventually modified to record audio and take screenshots. The documents were deleted within a few minutes from the drop servers, after the user had copied the files to his own PC.
Georgia blocked connections to the drop servers receiving the documents. The infected computers were then cleansed of the malware. But despite knowing his operation had been discovered, the user didn’t stop. In fact, he stepped up his game.
In the next round, he sent a series of emails to government officials that appeared to come from the president of Georgia, with the address “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Those emails contained a malicious PDF attachment, purportedly containing legal information, with an exploit that delivered malware.
Neither the exploit nor the malware were detected by security software.
How PDF attacks worked
The PDF attacks used the XDP file format, which is an XML data file that contains a Base64 encoded copy of a standard PDF file. The method at one time evaded all antivirus software and intrusion detection systems. It was only in June of this year that the U.K.’s Computer Emergency Response Team warned of it after its government agencies were targeted. Georgia saw such attacks more than a year prior to the warning.
That was one of the major clues that Georgia wasn’t dealing with an average hacker, but one who may have been part of a team with solid knowledge of complex attacks, cryptography, and intelligence.
“This guy had high-class skills,” Gurgenidze said.
Throughout 2011, the attacks continued and became more sophisticated. Investigators found the person in question was connected with at least two other Russian hackers as well as a German one. He was also active on some cryptography forums. Those clues, along with some weak security practices, allowed investigators to get closer to him.
Then, an trap was set.
The Georgia officials allowed the user to infect one of their computers on purpose. On that computer, they placed a ZIP archive entitled “Georgian-Nato Agreement.” He took the bait, which caused the investigators’ own spying program to be installed.
From there, his webcam was turned on, which resulted in fairly clear photos of his face. But after five to 10 minutes, the connection was cut off, presumably because the user knew he had been hacked. But in those few minutes, his computer—like the ones he targeted in the Georgian government—was mined for documents.
One Microsoft Word document, written in Russian, contained instructions from the man’s handler over which targets to infect and how. Other circumstantial evidence pointing to Russian involvement included the registration of a website that was used to send malicious emails. It was registered to an address next to the country’s Federal Security Service, formerly known as the KGB, the report said.
“We have identified Russian security agencies, once again,” it concludes.
Because of the strained relations between Russia and Georgia, it’s unlikely the man in the photo—whose name was not revealed—would ever be prosecuted if he lives in Russia.