Friday, 20 March 2015
It was in the summer of 2012 that the anomalies were initially detected by employees at Belgium’s largest telecommunications provider, Belgacom. But it wasn’t until a year later, in June 2013, that the company’s security experts were able to figure out what was going on. The computer systems of Belgacom had been infected with a highly sophisticated malware, and it was disguising itself as legitimate Microsoft software while quietly stealing data.
Last year, documents from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that British surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters was behind the attack, codenamed Operation Socialist. And in November, The Intercept revealed that the malware found on Belgacom’s systems was one of the most advanced spy tools ever identified by security researchers, who named it “Regin.”
The full story about GCHQ’s infiltration of Belgacom, however, has never been told. Key details about the attack have remained shrouded in mystery—and the scope of the attack unclear.
Now, in partnership with Dutch and Belgian newspapers NRC Handelsblad and De Standaard, The Intercept has pieced together the first full reconstruction of events that took place before, during, and after the secret GCHQ hacking operation.
Based on new documents from the Snowden archive and interviews with sources familiar with the malware investigation at Belgacom, The Intercept and its partners have established that the attack on Belgacom was more aggressive and far-reaching than previously thought. It occurred in stages between 2010 and 2011, each time penetrating deeper into Belgacom’s systems, eventually compromising the very core of the company’s networks.
Snowden told The Intercept that the latest revelations amounted to unprecedented “smoking-gun attribution for a governmental cyber attack against critical infrastructure.”
The Belgacom hack, he said, is the “first documented example to show one EU member state mounting a cyber attack on another…a breathtaking example of the scale of the state-sponsored hacking problem.”
Publicly, Belgacom has played down the extent of the compromise, insisting that only its internal systems were breached and that customers’ data was never found to have been at risk. But secret GCHQ documents show the agency gained access far beyond Belgacom’s internal employee computers and was able to grab encrypted and unencrypted streams of private communications handled by the company.
Belgacom invested several million dollars in its efforts to clean-up its systems and beef-up its security after the attack. However, The Intercept has learned that sources familiar with the malware investigation at the company are uncomfortable with how the clean-up operation was handled—and they believe parts of the GCHQ malware were never fully removed.
The revelations about the scope of the hacking operation will likely alarm Belgacom’s customers across the world. The company operates a large number of data links internationally (see interactive map below), and it serves millions of people across Europe as well as officials from top institutions including the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council. The new details will also be closely scrutinized by a federal prosecutor in Belgium, who is currently carrying out a criminal investigation into the attack on the company.
Sophia in ’t Veld, a Dutch politician who chaired the European Parliament’s recent inquiry into mass surveillance exposed by Snowden, told The Intercept that she believes the British government should face sanctions if the latest disclosures are proven.
“Compensating Belgacom should be the very least it should do,” in ’t Veld said. “But I am more concerned about accountability for breaking the law, violating fundamental rights, and eroding our democratic systems.”
Other similarly sophisticated state-sponsored malware attacks believed to have been perpetrated by Western countries have involved Stuxnet, a bug used to sabotage Iranian nuclear systems, and Flame, a spy malware that was found collecting data from systems predominantly in the Middle East.
What sets the secret British infiltration of Belgacom apart is that it was perpetrated against a close ally—and is backed up by a series of top-secret documents, which The Intercept is now publishing.
GCHQ declined to comment for this story, and insisted that its actions are “necessary legal, and proportionate.”