Hackers infiltrated thousands of EU diplomatic files over three years

19 Dec 2018

EU Parliament. Image: © Ludmila Smite/Stock.adobe.com

Hackers successfully targeted EU diplomatic communications over a number of years.

Anxiety regarding the administration of US president Donald Trump, Iran’s nuclear plans and other international concerns have been revealed following the successful infiltration of the European Union’s diplomatic communications network.

The New York Times reports that the hackers used techniques resembling work carried out by a specialised unit within the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. More than 1,100 diplomatic cables were supplied to the newspaper by security company Area 1 following the discovery of the breach. The cables were copied from the secure network and were then posted to an open internet site that the perpetrators had built.

Tripped up by a phishing campaign

The cables were exposed after a phishing campaign aimed at diplomats in Cyprus was a success. Hackers were then able to access the diplomatic cable system, Coreu.

CEO of Area 1, Oren Falkowitz, said: “People talk about sophisticated hackers, but there was nothing really sophisticated about this.”

The same group is reported to have infiltrated the networks of the United Nations, as well as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO).

International conversations

The messages from the EU include memorandums of conversations with leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries that were shared across the EU. One cable showed EU diplomats describe a meeting between Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Finland as “successful (at least for Putin)”.

Another, from March of this year, showed Caroline Vicini, deputy head of the EU mission in Washington DC, recommending that other EU diplomats describe the US as “our most important partner” even as the bloc disagreed with Trump on certain issues.

A third quoted Chinese president Xi Jinping as saying the country would “not submit to bullying” from the US government, “even if a trade war hurt everybody”.

Other cables discussed North Korea and Iran, as well as individuals the EU intended to place on blacklists on nuclear proliferation or human rights grounds.

EU remains tight-lipped

According to EU officials, data marked as confidential and secret was not affected by the operation, which was ongoing for three years. The EU also said it “does not comment on allegations nor on matters relating to operational security”.

An element of the UN material focuses on a period in 2016, when North Korea was launching missiles. It appears to include references to private meetings between the UN secretary general and Asian leaders.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects