Email Traffic of UK Atomic Weapons Organization Hijacked, Rerouted through Ukraine

Telecommunications // UK

It’s unclear how the Internet traffic for many British Telecom customers—including a defense contractor that helps make nuclear warheads —was diverted to servers in Ukraine before being passed along to its intended recipients.

The snag may have allowed adversaries to intercept or tamper with communications sent and received by the UK's Atomic Weapons Establishment, one of the affected clients. Other organizations with redirected traffic include Lockheed Martin, Toronto Dominion Bank, Anglo-Italian helicopter company AgustaWestland, and the UK Department for Environment, according to a blog post by researchers at Dyn, an online infrastructure consultancy.

The affected traffic appears to include email and virtual private network connections. The circuitous path caused the data “to travel thousands of miles to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev before turning around, retracing that route, and being delivered to its normal hub in London,” Ars Technica reports.

Sending the data to Kiev may have made it possible for employees with network access to Ukrainian telecom provider Vega to eavesdrop or manipulate data that wasn't encrypted.

The traffic misbehavior occurred over a 90-minute period on March12, with a handful of clients experiencing diverted traffic for five days beginning March 7.

“Does this list represent some curious mistake or something more? Either way, it redirected a portion of Internet traffic bound for networks, at a minimum resulting in poor performance for some customers,” Dyn Director of Internet analysis Doug Madory wrote.

This sort of rerouting – called a man-in-the-middle attack -- is the result of the implicit trust placed in the border gateway protocol used to exchange data between large service providers and their customers, which include banks, governments, network service providers, aerospace companies, and other sensitive organizations.