Hackers targeted dozens of computer systems at government agencies across Europe through a flaw in Adobe Systems Inc’s software, security researchers said on Wednesday, while NATO said it too had been attacked.
NATO said its systems had not been compromised, but it was sharing the details of the attack with member states and remained vigilant. Security experts say governments and organizations such as NATO are attacked on a daily basis — although the sophistication varies wildly.
These particular attacks appeared both widespread and innovative, the private computer security firms announcing the discovery said, with one expert saying he believed a nation-state might be responsible.
Russia’s Kaspersky Lab and Hungary’s Laboratory of Cryptography and System Security, or CrySyS, said the targets of the campaign included government computers in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Portugal and Romania.
They also said that a think tank, a research institute and a healthcare provider in the US, a prominent research institute in Hungary and other entities in Belgium and Ukraine were among those targeted by the malicious software, which they have dubbed “MiniDuke.”
The researchers suspect MiniDuke was designed for espionage, but were still trying to figure out the attack’s ultimate goal.
“This is a unique, fresh and very different type of attack,” said Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher with Kaspersky Lab. “The technical indicators show this is a new type of threat actor that hasn’t been reported on before.”
He said he would not speculate on who the hackers might be.
The malware exploited a recently identified security flaw in Adobe’s software. Adobe said a software patch issued last week should protect users from MiniDuke providing they downloaded it.
Boldizsar Bencsath, a cybersecurity expert who runs the malware research team at CrySyS, said he had reported the incident to NATO, although it was not clear if that was what first alerted the alliance.
Bencsath said he believed that a nation-state was behind the attack because of the level of sophistication and the identity of the targets, adding that it was difficult to identify which country was involved.
Exactly how serious the attacks were was not immediately clear, nor who exactly the targets were or at what level European governments were alerted.
The Czech counterintelligence agency BIS said it was not aware of any massive hacking attacks on Czech institutions from abroad recently. The Czech National Security Bureau, responsible for government data, was not immediately available for comment. Neither were officials from other states said to be affected.
A NATO official in Brussels had earlier said the alliance was not directly hit, but he said later that he had been incorrect. He gave no further details.
MiniDuke attacked by exploiting recently discovered security bugs in Adobe’s Reader and Acrobat software, according to the researchers. The attackers sent their targets PDF documents tainted with malware, an approach that hackers have long used to infect personal computers.