The websites of the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, OK magazine, the London Evening Standard and America’sNational Hockey League have been “hacked” by the Syrian Electronic Army, the pro-Assad Syrian hacker group.
Blame fell on the ad network due to the sporadic nature of the outages, which are difficult to replicate and spread over a number of sites.
Such symptoms are common for attacks delivered through an ad or content delivery network, which serves third-party code across a number of websites.
Independent and Telegraph affected
The Independent says that the hack came through the Gigya CDN it uses, writing that “hackers redirected some users to their site or to display their messages, by exploiting the DNS entry – which translates URLs such as independent.co.uk into directions to the site – at GoDaddy, the site’s domain registrar”.
The Telegraph referred the Guardian to two tweets in which it said that “a part of our website run by a third-party was compromised earlier today. We’ve removed the component. No Telegraph user data was affected. Thanks to those who’ve flagged it.”
Ernest Hilbert, a security consultant at Kroll Cyber, agrees that “it was Gigya. It is a DNS takeover, and this is what the Syrian Electronic Army does. Normally, you type in a URL, it goes to a domain name server, and it says ‘those words equal this website’.
“But not every user can get in through one connection, particularly at bigger sites. A CDN means that, because you can’t all fit in through the same door, it sends you to another one, another version of the content. And one of those versions, which hosts copies of all these affected sites, appears to have been compromised by the Syrian electronic army.”
Syrian Electronic Army started attacks in 2011
The Syrian Electronic Army are a state-sponsored group operating under Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The group has attacked numerous targets since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Guardian.
Most recently, the Sun and the Sunday Times were attacked by the group in June of this year.
Unlike many state-sanctioned hack attacks, the SEA tends to focus on extremely public targets, and uses its successes to promote its cause and gain publicity. It is also notable for attacking its targets using a mixture of social engineering and “spear phishing”, rather than exploiting computer vulnerabilities.