On July 16, Qurium Media Foundation released a report, “A Decade of Efforts To Keep Independent Azerbaijani Media Online”.
The report highlights the work carried out by Qurium since 2010 assisting targeted independent and opposition online news platforms in Azerbaijan. “For more than a decade, Qurium has monitored and mitigated a wide range of cyberattacks against the websites and since 2016, no less than twenty forensics reports have been released to document our findings,” reads the new report.
Denial of Service attacks
During five years (2010-2015), Qurium mitigated dozens of denial of service attacks against Azerbaijani media, and was forced to invest in mitigation hardware and to increase its Internet capacity. Commercial mitigation of denial of service was not possible for Azeri media organizations as the average cost for such services was close to 1,000 Euro/month for a small website.
During 2014-2016, several corporate efforts made Denial of Service more difficult for the attackers, both Cloudflare (2014) and later Google (2016) started to offer free protection to journalists and human rights groups and many stress testing services (aka “booters”) since then were dismantled by FBI, such as the infamous VDOS Booter and the Mirai botnet.
After three years of research of development (2014-2017), Qurium built its own mitigation hardware and upgraded its Internet capacity by a factor of 200. Although the Denial of service attacks slowly had decreased since 2017, new challenges emerged. Internet Network Interference.
Internet Network Interference
In late 2013, a new type of challenge emerged when we discovered that websites artificially were slowed down. Instead of blocking the websites that clearly would expose the motivations and those responsible for the disruptions, the websites were slowed down by limiting the amount of bandwidth available to reach them. Qurium was forced to develop a method to detect “Internet Congestion” and to keep moving affected websites to other IP addresses to keep them online. Other large providers, such as Akamai, hosting other Azeri media was also slowed down and was unable to respond effectively to the challenge.
Exposing a coordinated cyberwar strategy
Starting from 2017, the cyberwar landscape changed.
During that year, we received customized denial of service, pen testing and vulnerability scans and the first reports of targeted malware.
A series of diverse attacks and forensics analysis including tracing back the source of a malware sent to journalists helped us to confirm that new Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies and the “hacker community” built around the government, sponsored cybersecurity events were actively targeting our hosted media.
After hosting and protecting Azeri media for almost seven years, we had no doubt about the actors behind the attacks, and could publicly document that a “State Actor” was orchestrating diverse forms of cyber attacks.
Deep Packet Inspection
Also in 2017, a new method used against independent and opposition media was identified by Qurium – the Deep Packet Inspection or shortly DPI.
In April 2017, we identified that new technical means were implemented in several operators to block some of the websites. The Azeri authorities had invested in Deep Packet Inspection equipment to block the media outlets once and for all.
By the end of April 2017 Qurium learned that there were a court order against some of our hosted media organizations. To our surprise, the websites under Deep Packet Inspection were many more than the ones mentioned in the court order. The court order stated that the listed websites (Azadliq.info, Azadliq.org, Azerbaycansaati.com, Meydan.tv and Turan TV) were “creating threats to the legitimate interests of the state and society” and must therefore be blocked.
After two years of research between 2017-2019, Qurium identified the use of DPI hardware from Allot Communications and Sandvine inside several operators in Azerbaijan.
Website flooding, phishing, and more
By 2018, many of the “stress testing services” often used to launch the Denial of Service attacks had been dismantled world wide. The attackers were forced to find new alternatives to conduct their traffic floods aiming to take the websites offline. During another forensic investigation we traced back this new source of denial of service to Russian Fineproxy (Region40). By identifying the service provider used to conduct the attacks, we could not only expose their business practices but also their management that kindly disabled the account of the attacker.
In late 2018, Denial of Service became a second priority in the strategy to harass Azeri media and once again other means were needed.
By April 2020, Qurium could finally link the denial of service attacks launched using Fineproxy service with the very same threat actor from the Ministry of Internal Affairs: sandman. Access to sandman github account provided us with a good insight of the toolset that was being used against online media and journalists in Azerbaijan.
A final report of our findings showed even more advanced capabilities, like the ability to create fake SMS or hijack SMS sent to the journalists giving the attackers the ability to take control over their social media accounts.
Phishing remains a major attack vector against journalists and human right activists, the latest phishing campaign in early July 2021 impersonated human rights watch so as to implant a malware capable of recording the desktop and webcam or exfiltrate all important documents of the victims.
What started in 2010 and went on for years with Denial of service attacks using third party stress testing services was extended with more sophisticated attacks in 2017 including targeted phishing and the introduction of dedicated hardware to block the websites using technologies as DART from Allot and PCEF from Sandvine.
The national blocking of many websites, not always supported by legal court orders, has been weaponized to limit visibility of the media in the country. Despite our multiple efforts to provide alternatives to make the content available, the blocking has had a huge impact in the revenue creation of the alternative media and the growth of readership.
After the introduction of Internet blocking by means of more sophisticated deep packet inspection against alternative websites in 2018, many of the blocked media opted to increase their presence in Facebook but that has proven to be an advantageous situation for the Azeri government and their secret cyber operations as Facebook has showed a bad track record in dealing with “coordinated inauthentic behavior” in the country.
You can read the full report here.