Cyber Intelligence From the Deep Web – An Interview with SenseCy CEO Gadi Aviran

Below is a shortened version of an interview with SenseCy CEO, Gadi Aviran. The full interview is available in vpnMentor Blog.

Gadi Aviran is a man of many talents. Formerly the head of the technical intelligence analysis desk at the IDF (Israeli Defense force), Aviran has been involved in technical terror intelligence analysis for over a decade, serving as one of Israel’s leading authorities in the field of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and in Disposal of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Since his retirement from the military, Aviran has founded a number of companies that all deal with different aspects of OSINT/WEBINT intelligence, including SenseCy, where he currently serves as CEO. In this rare interview he talks about cyber intelligent from the detective’s perspective, and explains why successful cyber intelligence can never be done by machines only.

vpnMentor: Please tell us about your personal background and the companies you’re involved in.

Lets not start in the middle ages, we’ll start when I got out of the military and founded a company which ended up being Terrogence in 2004. Terrogence took it upon itself to look for intelligence in the open web, but use a different methodology than what most of the companies out there are doing. Normally, a company would set up crawlers to collect all the data they can, and then look through the data to find those pieces of information that are important for them, but like a needle in the hay, it’s a long and insufficient process.

At Terrogence, we decided to answer questions instead, meaning, we ask our clients what kind of information are they interested in, and use assumed identities or ‘virtual humant’ in order to penetrate and infiltrate closed areas within the web to find the answers.

As time went by, we developed our own technology, which supports us very much in doing what we do. We incorporated a new technological company called “Webintpro”, which provides software solutions for intelligence gathering, while Terrogence remained a service provider.

About 5 years ago we started receiving requests from customers, asking about threats in the cyber domain, and that’s when we started dealing with cyber security. We changed our name to SenseCy about 2 years ago due to market responses to the word ‘Terrogence’, bearing in mind that the market is mainly civilian.

vpnMentor: So what can you tell about the work of SenseCy?

SenseCy is an interesting creature. It’s very focused on the customers, providing them insights from dark and distant parts of the web. In order to do that we look into their DNA and see who’s talking about them, who’s selling their information, who’s interested in their domain, their software and their personal activities, and that gives us a very unique perspective.  There are only about 5-10 companies in the world that actually do what we do, so it’s a very interesting and very challenging business to be in.

We have been operating in the cyber domain for the past 5 years, offering very unique capabilities which attract the attention of potential customers and partners. We represent a very narrow and interesting niche in the cyber protection arena. As you know the industry had gone through a whole set of changes, but at the end of the day the answers are not sufficient; what people are interested in is not how dangerous the web is as a whole, but what are the dangers FOR THEM?

For example, if someone is interested in buying emails of your c-level personnel, or shows specific interest in your company in order to obtain information or funds from and about the company, it’s a dangerous situation for everyone involved. This is what we call a personalized threat, and if you were a target, you’d definitely want to know about it.

vpnMentor: What type of clients do you work with and what types of threats are they facing?

Our customers come from different walks of life. We have of course clients from the finance, health and insurance industries which are constantly threatened by cyber activities, but it’s a changing landscape. Finance used to be the hottest thing and get the most threats, but now we can see that the health industry is becoming a much greater target, because they have information that’s worth a lot of money.

Hackers who do it for money will find whoever’s willing to pay, and exploit them in every way they can. In some cases they may sell the information to many people, or ask their victim to pay a ransom for receiving their data back. As you probably know, ransomware is a huge business these days.

vpnMentor: Surely, money isn’t the only motive for attackers of such scale.

That’s right. Bear in mind though that the world of cyber is segmented into 3 general types of threats. I’ve already mentioned the money-driven hackers. There are also of course state sponsored threats, where we have very little visibility over what is going on. There are exceptions, for instance, in places like Iran, where state and private activities are often mixed up, but generally speaking, we do not investigate or report about state abilities because states normally don’t operate on the web, they do it in a much more private way.

The third type of threat is hacktivism, where each player has his own sources and in some cases his own malware or tools. In their eyes, they do it for “justice”.

Take Anonymous for instance, who attacked Japanese companies and government institutions, including those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Ministry of Finance, the Financial Services Agency and Nissan Motors, because they endanger dolphins and whales. It used to be that the hacktivists were relatively low key. Their technology wasn’t very advanced and relied mainly on DDOS capability, but that is completely changed now. The tools that are now being used for hacktivism campaigns are the most advanced tools that we are finding, but they are not tools that are made to make money, they are tools made to destruct.

vpnMentor: What is the difference between your work and the work of a professional hacker?

The 2 companies that came out of Terrogence only deal with open source intelligence (OSINT). A source can be a news article in the New York Times, or an Arabic newspaper, which is published online but is only available to people who understand Arabic.

The information can hide behind various doors of privacy but at the end of the day it’s all in the public domain. We don’t hack into sources of information, we don’t use backdoors into them, and we are very overt about what we do.

In addition to our business clients, we’ve also been working for many governments, meaning that what we do is legal. We are very careful not to cross the legality lines, so whenever we’re asked to do something, we look into it, and if a task’s legality is uncertain, we will not follow it through. To sum things up, we are not hackers and we’re not hacker-wanabees: We’re a business. We’ve been doing it for quite a long time and we do it well.

vpnMentor: I suppose as an intelligence provider you’d prefer to remain under the radar.

Yes our work is very tailored, we work for customers that have a name and that name is something we hold very closely. We share some of it in our blog and give lectures here and there, but generally we go into the light very little. We don’t participate in trade conferences and things like that, and it’s not where we find our customers- the customers normally come to us. The fact that I’m talking to you is not something that we normally do.

At the end of the day, it’s an industry of essence. You are not judged by how much PR you have, but by the intelligence that you provide to the customer.

The Healthcare Sector is Targeted by Cybercriminals More than Ever

The healthcare sector has recently become a desirable target for cyber crooks. According to Symantec ISTR report statistics, healthcare was the most breached sub-sector in 2015, comprising almost 40% of all the attacks. Hospital security systems are generally less secure than those of financial organizations, as monetary theft has always been perceived as the greatest threat for organizations, and dangers to other sectors were usually underestimated. Moreover, awareness of cyber-attacks against hospitals and medical centers is much lower than it is to financial cybercrime, and as a result, the employees are less well-trained on how to avoid falling victim to a cyber-attack.

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Top 10 Sub-Sectors Breached by Number of Incidents According to Symantec ISTR report

Only lately, this concept has started to be challenged, revealing the potential damage that can be caused by the theft and leakage of patient data. However, the ‘bad guys’ remain one step ahead and during the last few months, we have witnessed a spate of attacks targeting the healthcare industry: ransomware attacks encrypting essential data and demanding payment of a ransom, numerous data leakages revealing confidential patient data, unauthorized access to medical networks and even the hacking of medical devices, such as pumps and X-ray equipment.

Moreover, the healthcare sector is being targeted by hackers not only directly, but also via third-party companies in the supply chain, such as equipment and drug suppliers. These companies usually store some confidential data that originates in the hospitals’ databases and may even have access to the hospital IT systems, but they are far less secure than the hospitals themselves. Thus, they serve as a preferable infiltration point for malicious actors pursuing the theft of medical data and attempting to infiltrate the hospitals’ networks.

The consequences of attacks on the healthcare industry may be extensive, including the impairment of the medical center functioning, which may result in danger to human lives in the worst case scenario. In other cases, personal data will be stolen and sold on underground markets. Cybercriminals will take advantages of these personal details for identity theft or for future cyber-attacks combining social engineering based on the stolen details.

While monitoring closed Deep-Web and Darknet sources, SenseCy analysts recently noticed a growing interest toward the healthcare sector among cyber criminals. Databases of medical institutions are traded on illicit marketplaces and closed forums, along with access to their servers. In the last few months alone, we came across several occurrences indicating extensive trade of medical records and access to servers where this data is stored.

The first case, in May 2016, was the sale of RDP access for a large clinic group with several branches in the central U.S., which was offered for sale on a Darknet closed forum. For a payment of $50,000 Bitcoins, the buyer would receive access to the compromised workstation, with access to 3 GB of data stored on four hard disks. Additionally, the workstation allows access to an aggregate electronical system (EHR) for managing medical records, where data regarding patients, suppliers, payments and more can be exploited.

Although the seller did not mention the origin of the credentials he was selling, he claimed that local administrator privileges could be received on the compromised system. He also specified that 45 users from the medical personnel were logged into the system from the workstation he hacked.

The relatively high price for this offer indicates the high demand for medical information. With RDP access, the potential attackers can perform any action on the compromised workstation: install malware, encrypt the files or erase them, infect other machines in the network and access any data stored in the network. The consequences can be tremendous.

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An excerpt of the sale thread posted on a Darknet forum

 

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Screenshot allegedly taken on the hacked workstation

Just a few weeks later, in June 2016, our analysts detected another cyber-accident related to healthcare. This time, three databases allegedly stolen via an RDP access to a medical organization were offered for sale for more than $500,000 on a dedicated Darknet marketplace. In one of his posts, the seller claimed that one of the databases belongs to a large American health insurer.

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One of the sales posts on a Darknet marketplace

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Screenshot posted by the seller as a proof of hacking into a medical organization

Before long, we again discovered evidence of hacking into a medical-related organization, this time by Russian-speaking hackers. On one of the forums we monitor, a member tried to sell an SSH access to the server of an American company supplying equipment to 130 medical center in the U.S. He uploaded screenshots proving that he accessed the server where personal data of patients is stored.

The conclusions following these findings are concerning. An extensive trade in medical information and compromised workstations and servers is a common sight on underground illegal markets. This business generates hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars annually, ensuring its continuation as long as there are such high profits to those involved. Since the ramifications can be grave, the healthcare sector must take all necessary measures to protect their systems and data:

  1. Implement a strong password policy, because many hacks are a result of brute-force attack. Strong passwords and two-factor authentications to log into organizational systems should be the number one rule for medical organizations.
  2. Deploy suitable security systems.
  3. Instruct the employees to follow cyber security rules – choosing strong and unique passwords, spotting phishing email messages, avoiding clicking on links and downloading files from unknown sources, etc. Consider periodic training for employees on these issues to maintain high awareness and compliance with the rules.
  4. Use Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI) – to keep up with the times regarding the current most prominent threats to your organization and industry.
  5. Keep all software updated.

New Infographic – Tips on Avoiding Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware is emerging as a predominant online security threat to both home users and businesses, with numerous reports appearing every day on ransomware attacks against organizations across the globe. SenseCy analysts have prepared a short list of security measures recommended for any business to help avoid these attacks. Check out the tips and stay safe!

Defending against Ransomware

#OpIcarus – a War against the Global Financial Sector

During May 2016, we witnessed the second phase of the #OpIcarus cyber campaign against banks around the world, launched by the Anonymous collective in February 2016. The participants carried out DDoS attacks against bank websites in various countries on a daily basis. Several cyber-attacks succeeded in shutting down the websites of central banks in Greece, Cyprus and other countries.

Platforms

The initiators created two Facebook event pages and opened an IRC channel to coordinate their cyber-attacks. Approximately 2,000 participants joined the #OpIcarus event pages, but many more hacktivists expressed their support of this campaign via their social media accounts. With regard to the dedicated IRC channel, it appears not to have been as active as the campaign platforms in Facebook and Twitter.

From the #OpIcarus IRC Channel

Attacks and Tools

According to news reports, #OpIcarus participants shut down bank websites around the world on a daily basis. We cannot confirm that all of the mentioned banks websites were actually offline, due to the participant DDoS attacks, but we wish to point out several incidents that caught our attention.

A member of the Ghost Squad Hackers group dubbed s1ege took responsibly for shutting down the email server of the Bank of England. The bank did respond to this attack, but according to news reports, the bank’s mail server was offline on May 13, 2016.

Member of Ghost Squad Hackers claimed they shut down the mail server of the Bank of England

Member of Ghost Squad Hackers claimed they shut down the mail server of the Bank of England

In addition, according to a single news report shared on various Facebook accounts, Chase Bank ATMs stopped working on May 14, 2016, as a result of the Anonymous collective cyber activity. The Twitter account of Chase Bank’s technical support tweeted that their ATMs did not accept any deposits on this day, but they did not mention what had caused the problem. Meanwhile, the Ghost Squad Hackers group tweeted that the incident was part of the #OpIcarus campaign.

Chase Bank's technical support tweeted about a problem with their ATMs

Chase Bank’s technical support tweeted about a problem with their ATMs

Ghost Squad Hackers claim that Chase ATMs were hacked during #OpIcarus

Ghost Squad Hackers claimed that Chase ATMs were hacked during #OpIcarus

Additionally, s1ege claimed on May 18, 2016, that they had shut down a website related to the NYSE. The NYSE Twitter account tweeted that they had experienced a technical issue in one of their trading units. They did not mention what had caused the problem. Therefore, it is unclear if there is any connection to the Ghost Squad Hackers group, aside from the latter’s claim of responsibility.

A member of Ghost Squad Hackers claimed they hacked a website related to the NYSE

The NYSE announced that they had a technical issue that affected their daily activity

The NYSE announced that they had a technical issue that affected their daily activity

With regard to the attack tools, the participants used a variety of DDoS, some of which were simple online tools with no sophisticated DDoS abilities. However, there were indications that they used DDoS-as-a-Service (DaaS) platforms, such as Booters/Stressers that require payment and registration. In addition, the New World Hackers (NWH) team that took responsibility for shutting down the HSBC Bank website on January 29, 2016, supported the #OpIcarus campaign.

A call to use Booters on an #OpIcarus event page

A call to use Booters on an #OpIcarus event page

This campaign gained high popularity among hacktivists from all over the world who were motivated to DDoS bank websites protesting corruption and other issues. It is possible that the initiators will decide to engage an additional phase of this campaign, since one of them claimed in an interview that “Operation Icarus will continue as long as there are corrupt and greedy banks out there.”

Terrogence, SenseCy and Sixgill Announce a Strategic Partnership

Terrogence, SenseCy and Sixgill have formed a strategic partnership to deliver next generation integrated big data analytics and cyber threat intelligence for Japanese clients. The new venture allows organizations to create their own personal collection lists and real-time threat alerts enhanced with actionable intelligence. We look forward to working together to produce high quality intelligence for our customers.

The full press release can be viewed here.

#OpIsrael 2016 – Summary

This year, #OpIsrael hacktivists focused on defacing private websites, carrying out DDoS attacks and leaking databases. Hundreds of private Israeli websites were defaced, mostly by Fallaga and AnonGhost members. Various databases containing Israeli email addresses and credit cards were leaked, but the majority were recycled from previous campaigns.

The hacktivists attacks commenced on April 5, 2016, two days before the campaign was launched, with a massive DDoS attack against an Israeli company that provides cloud services. The fact that no one took responsibility for the attack, alongside the massive DDoS power invested, may indicate that threat actors with advanced technical abilities were responsible.

On April 7, 2016, approximately 2,650 Facebook users expressed their desire to participate in the campaign via anti-Israel Facebook event pages. There are several possible reasons for the low number of participants (compared for example to the 5,200 participants in #OpIsrael 2015). One reason might be disappointment in last year’s lack of significant achievements. Another reason could be the devotion of attention to other topics, such as the cyber campaign against the Islamic State (IS), in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels. Moreover, it is possible that anti-Israel hacktivists have abandoned social media networks for other platforms, such as IRC and Telegram.

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Number of participants in the #OpIsrael campaign since 2014

During the campaign, we detected many indications of the use of common DDoS tools, such as HOIC, and simple DDoS web platforms that do not require any prior technical knowledge in order to operate them. Most of the DDoS attacks were directed against Israeli government and financial websites. Hacktivists claimed they managed to take down two Israeli bank websites. While this could be true, the websites were up and operational again within a short time. In addition, there were no indications of the use of RATs or ransomware against Israeli targets.

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Using common DDoS tools against an Israeli website

As mentioned previously, most of the leaked databases were recycled from previous campaigns. However, we noticed that almost all of the new leaked databases were stolen from the same source – an Israeli company that develop websites. Notably, during the 2014 #OpIsrael campaign, this company website appeared on a list of hacked websites.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the leakage of these databases, which raises many questions, since anti-Israel hacktivists typically publish their achievements on social media networks to promote the success of the campaign. Moreover, almost all of these databases were first leaked in the Darknet, but anti-Israel hacktivists do not use this platform at all. In addition, all of the data leakages were allegedly leaked by a hacker dubbed #IndoGhost, but there are no indications to suggest that this entity was involved in the #OpIsrael campaign or any other anti-Israel activity.

Finally, we detected several attempts to organize another anti-Israel campaign for May 7, 2016. As an example, we identified a post calling to hack Israeli government websites on this date. We estimate that these attempts will not succeed in organizing another anti-Israel cyber campaign.

#OpIsrael 2016 – Intelligence Review

The #OpIsrael campaign has been repeated every year since 2013. Last year, the campaign failed to achieve his main goals, as the participants did not succeed in carrying out any significant cyber attacks against high-profile targets, such as government or financial websites. They only managed to deface private Israeli websites and leak databases (most of which were recycled from previous campaigns).

This year, we noticed that the number of the expected participants is relatively low – approximately 2,100 Facebook users have expressed a desire to participate in the campaign via dedicated #OpIsrael anti-Israel Facebook event pages. This constitutes half the number of participants that we detected in 2015 (approximately 5,200 Facebook users). There may be several reasons for this low number, one being disappointment from last year’s lack of significant achievements. Another reason could be attention devoted to other factors, such as the cyber campaign against the Islamic State (IS) following the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels.

This year we detected 13 different #OpIsrael event pages – the same number of event pages detected in 2015. The most popular page is one created by two Tunisian hacker groups dubbed Fallaga and Tunisian Cyber Resistance.

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Fallaga and Tunisian Cyber Resistance #OpIsrael event page

Of note, many participants will join several event pages concurrently. Therefore, the actual number of Facebook users that wish to participate in this year’s campaign is actually less than 2,000. According to our analysis, most of the discussions about the campaign on social media networks are taking place in North Africa (Tunisia in particular) and Southeast Asia (notably in Indonesia).

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We have identified additional platforms where anti-Israel hacktivists are preparing for the #OpIsrael campaign: closed and secret Facebook groups, Telegram and IRC channels and closed forums. The AnonGhost team has opened two Telegram channels for the purposes of updating and sharing information. In addition, the group has opened a dedicated website for the campaign, but it is offline at present.

We also witnessed an interesting chat on an IRC channel dedicated to #OpIsrael, where one of the conversation participants said that hacktivists affiliated with Anonymous do not have time to participate in the #OpIsrael campaign because they are preoccupied with their cyber war against targets identified with the Islamic State.

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From a chat on an IRC channel dedicated to #OpIsrael

With regard to the attack vectors, we assume the attackers will attempt to carry out DDoS attacks or leak the databases of small Israeli websites (based on past experience, most of the data leakage will be recycled from previous campaigns). We also believe they will use familiar or self-developed DDoS tools, as well as malware based on njRAT, which is very popular among Arabic-speaking hacktivists.

It is also possible that there will be attempts to infect Israeli end-points with Ransomware via emails with malicious files during this campaign. In most cases, these malicious emails pose as invoices, fax notifications or fake purchase orders to deceive unsuspecting users. Moreover, attackers sometimes spoof an internal email address to alleviate the concerns of potential victims.