Russian cyberspies targeted the MH17 crash investigation

The Pawn Storm cyberespionage group set up rogue VPN and SFTP servers to target Dutch Safety Board employees

malaysia airlines flight 17

The reconstructed wreckage of the MH17 airplane is seen after the presentation of the final report into the crash of July 2014 of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, in Gilze Rijen, the Netherlands, October 13, 2015.

Credit: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

A Russian cyberespionage group that frequently targets government institutions from NATO member countries tried to infiltrate the international investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17).

MH17 was a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that crashed in eastern Ukraine close to the Russian border on 17 July, 2014. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members lost their lives.

The Dutch Safety Board led an international investigation into the incident and released a final report on Oct. 13, concluding that the Boeing 777-200 aircraft was shot down by a warhead launched from a Russian-built Buk missile system.

Security researchers from Trend Micro have found evidence that a cyberespionage group dubbed Pawn Storm, which has long been suspected to have ties to the Russian intelligence services, has targeted the Dutch Safety Board before and after the MH17 report was finalized.

On Sept. 28, the group set up a rogue SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) server mimicking the one used by the Dutch Safety Board. On Oct. 14, the group did the same with a virtual private networking (VPN) server.

On Sept. 29, a fake Outlook Web Access (OWA) server was also created by the group to target a partner of the Dutch Safety Board in the MH17 investigation, the Trend Micro researchers said in a blog post Thursday.

It is likely that the rogue servers were set up with the goal of phishing login credentials from people involved in the MH17 crash investigation in order to obtain access to confidential information, the researchers said.

This is the first time the Trend Micro researchers have seen a cyberespionage group set up a rogue VPN server for phishing. Even though the Dutch Safety Board's real server uses temporary access tokens for authentication, those can be easily stolen and don't protect against one-time fraudulent access, the researchers said.

Most of Pawn Storm's attacks to date have reflected Russia's geo-political interests. The group has recently intensified its campaigns against critics of the country's intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Over the past two months several rogue OWA servers were set up to launch phishing attacks against the military and ministries of defense and foreign affairs of most Middle Eastern countries that oppose the Russian military campaign in Syria, the Trend Micro researchers said.

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