Hacktivists apparently loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have bragged they hacked into Microsoft's internal system that bills US cops and feds for access to citizens' private data.
And the hackers have apparently spilled the beans on how much Redmond is paid for servicing those American wiretap requests.
The documents were leaked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) after it infiltrated servers belonging to Redmond, it's claimed. The disclosure follows assaults on two official Microsoft-owned online outlets in January alone: the official Facebook and Twitter pages for Redmond's chat service Skype as well as its blog were hit at the turn of the year, and the XboxSupport Twitter pages and the official Microsoft Office blog were compromised later in January.
Microsoft was forced to admit that some of its employees' email accounts had been hijacked as a result of the hacking.
The SEA is best known for breaking into the computers of Western companies using spear-phishing techniques and joyriding their social media accounts to play merry havoc.
One of its recent victims, The Daily Dot, has analyzed what is claimed to be a stolen cache of emails and invoices from Microsoft's systems for US law enforcement types. The leaked files detail months of transactions between Microsoft's Global Criminal Compliance team and the FBI's Digital Intercept Technology Unit, we're told. Experts quizzed by The Daily Dot said the dossier seemed genuine, but there's no concrete proof one way or another.
The invoices state Microsoft charged the FBI unit between $50 to $200 for every user Uncle Sam requested the records for. Receipts filed under FBI Contract JFB108289 regularly exceeded hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
In a statement, Microsoft said that US law allows private firms to bill for the cost of servicing law enforcement requests – but declined to comment on the alleged stolen emails or documents, nor did the software giant address questions regarding how the SEA appears to have broken into its systems yet again. The company told us:
We’ve previously stated that Microsoft won’t comment on the validity of any stolen emails or documents. Regarding law enforcement requests, there’s nothing unusual here. Under U.S. law, companies can seek reimbursement for costs associated with complying with valid legal orders for customer data. As we state clearly in our Law Enforcement Requests Report, we attempt to recover some of the costs associated with any such orders. Please refer to our Trustworthy Computing blog posted on January 24, 2014 for more details.
The SEA is a prolific hacking crew that claims to be loyal to the embattled Syrian president, and first began operations in mid-2011. Its activities have included flooding websites offline, phishing for passwords to high-profile social networking accounts, and dumping pro-Assad defacements on sites. The group has targeted governments, tech firms and media outlets it reckons are hostile to the Syrian government or in furtherance of its political agenda against Western support of anti-Assad rebels.
A 94-page report [PDF] into the the SEA by security intelligence startup IntelCrawler, released on Thursday, provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of the group's activities to date along with intelligence about previously undisclosed attacks:
In the beginning they seemed only interested in hacking to make political statements. But over time, as they gained notoriety and picked up technical resources and support, the SEA has evolved into the realm of global espionage, where some of their targets are “C” level executives at technology and media companies, allied military procurement officers, United States defense contractors, and foreign attaches and embassies.
Although the Syrian Electronic Army has used malware and sophisticated hacking tools, their standard method of operation is usually spear phishing, a craft they have perfected very well
Many modern businesses’ spend millions of dollars on network security, protecting against emerging Advanced Persistent Threats (APT’s), new exploits, malicious code, and zero-day vulnerabilities, only to have a key executive compromised via spear phishing and essentially expose potential keys to the kingdom.
IntelCrawler reckons the group has targeted 110 different corporations in 18 countries. The security startup's dossier details various tools, tactics, and indicators of compromise linked to attacks by the hacktivists including attempts to circumvent Google's two-step SMS authentication technology that involve tricking users into visiting a fake website at the time they request authentication codes.
Beyond the high-profile "hacktivision" assaults, several military contractors and governments were compromised in cyber-espionage campaigns run by the SEA, according to IntelCrawler, whose reports profile eight members of the group. ®
Additional reporting by Iain Thomson.