Just days after they targeted the New York Post, the pro-Assad hacking group — Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) — has targeted Outbrain.com, a company that delivers recommended content links to the bottom of articles published by more than 400 websites including CNN, Time, Fox News, NBC News, Reuters, US Weekly, Slate, Mashable, and the Washington Post.
The SEA used their ill-gotten access, to compromise Outbrain.com's WordPress installation, as well as their content distribution system. According to Outbrain.com, the breach occurred due to a Phishing attack that originated from an email that spoofed their CEO's account.
"Earlier today, Outbrain was the victim of a social engineering attack by the Syrian Electronic Army...On the evening of August 14th, a phishing email was sent to all employees at Outbrain purporting to be from Outbrains CEO. It led to a page asking Outbrain employees to input their credentials to see the information. Once an employee had revealed their information, the hackers were able to infiltrate our email systems and identify other credentials for accessing some of our internal systems," the company said in a technical notice to customers.
The distribution point controls the recommended links presented on their customer's pages. These links were in turned used by the SEA to redirect visitors to pro-Assad propaganda.
"The Washington Post Web site was hacked today, with readers on certain stories being redirected to the site of the Syrian Electronic Army. The group is a hacker collective that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Post is working to resolve the issue," a statement from the Post's editors said.
The SEA published screenshots showing the backend administration panels used to manage recommended links for the CNN and Time, but a separate screenshot shows records for 3M, Disney Infinity, 7Elecen, The Onion, and BBC. Other than the Washington Post, none of the other firms have issued statements or reported attacks.
In an interview about the incident, adding a researchers perspective, Craig Young, a Senior Security Researcher for Tripwire, told CSO earlier this afternoon, that at this point, standard incident response procedures will apply.
"They are definitely going to need to do through checks against their systems, in order to make sure that no backdoors have been installed, and that compromised passwords have been changed. I don't think it is game over for them so much, but any information that was in their network certainly shouldn't be considered private anymore," he said.
Hours later, Outbrain.com confirmed Young's line of though, announcing that service was scheduled to be restored later in the evening.
"We have now secured the Outbrain network verifying the integrity of our code and blocking all external access to our systems. We have also restored system settings to their state prior to the attack," the company said in their final customer update on the issue.
The SEA is known for using Phishing, and other social engineering tricks in order to gain access to their victims. In order to spread pro-Assad propaganda, they favor social media accounts and news organizations. With a list that traces back to mid-2012, the SEA has claimed responsibility for attacks against the Associated Press, eleven accounts maintained by Britain's The Guardian, three accounts maintained by CBS News, and Thompson Reuters.
In May, Twitter warned media companies about attacks such as the ones initiated by the SEA, and said that for the foreseeable Phishing attacks would continue, as it was clear "that news and media organizations will continue to be high value targets to hackers."
One expert sees this incident as a learning experience for organizations when it comes to partnering with other providers, noting that the principle of "Trust No One" would apply in cases such as this.
"In order to keep your applications secure, its important to explore the possibility that a trusted relationship today could suddenly become a hostile relationship tomorrow. Advertising networks, link exchanges, hosted forums, and RSS feeds are just a few of the various types of embedded integrations that have commonly been targeted in the past," wrote Juniper's Kyle Adams.
"You might have an SLA, a contract, or some other legal protection in place, but if the third party is breached themselves, all that goes out the window. So as you plan to integrate with another company, make sure you harden the integration points as thoroughly as you harden your public facing attack surface. Hopefully in this way, you can avoid being the next company to apologize for someone elses mistakes."
This story was updated on August 15, 2013 at 6:55 p.m. EDT. The changes made by the author reflect new information and updated facts as provided by Outbrain.com, in addition to adding additional commentary from Juniper.