North Korea Has Hackers for Hire, Agencies Warn

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State, Treasury, FBI join CISA in an alert noting the unexpected way the nation-state is using its cyber talent.

Officials and analysts have long associated cyberattacks for financial gain with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—its economy struggles under the weight of international sanctions—but a Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency advisory warns the regime also conducts attacks on other entities’ behalf.

“DPRK cyber actors have also been paid to hack websites and extort targets for third-party clients,” CISA wrote in an alert it issued Wednesday along with the FBI and the departments of State and Treasury.

Officials did not say why the agencies issued the alert at this particular time, but North Korea’s apparent use of its cyber expertise to serve entities outside the regime—which they noted in “technical details” of the advisory—came as a surprise to seasoned intelligence analysts.  

“The most interesting revelation to come out of this morning’s report was that North Korean hackers were offering their services to third parties and being paid to work as hackers-for-hire,” John Hultquist, senior director of intelligence analysis for FireEye Mandiant Threat Intelligence, told Nextgov.

Hultquist said intelligence analysts knew the North Koreans were freelancing software development and other, similar commercial activities, but that they didn’t have any evidence they were executing intrusions and conducting attacks for outside entities.  

“It’s not uncommon for states to tap commercial or criminal talent which then carries on parallel criminal activity, but it is rare for us to find evidence of state actors carrying out criminal side operations with the government’s knowledge,” he added. “Ultimately, this is yet more evidence that North Korea is heavily invested in its cyber capability and taking every opportunity to leverage and monetize it.”

In February, CISA issued a joint alert on the North Korean threat with the Defense Department. Reacting to that alert, Wesley McGrew, director of cyber operations at the security firm HORNE Cyber, highlighted the strain North Korea is under due to long term sanctions and self-isolation, anticipating, “this will result in a greater urgency for them to conduct criminal/financial cyber operations.”

Today’s interagency advisory noted those sanctions, along with North Korea’s ambition for developing a weapon of mass destruction, as drivers of activities targeting the financial sector.

“Under the pressure of robust U.S. and [United Nations] sanctions, the DPRK has increasingly relied on illicit activities—including cybercrime—to generate revenue for its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs,” the alert reads. “In particular, the United States is deeply concerned about North Korea’s malicious cyber activities, which the U.S. government refers to as HIDDEN COBRA.”

CISA’s February alert included analysis of seven malware variants associated with HIDDEN COBRA and related mitigations.   

Today’s alert was not as “actionable” one analyst said, trying to determine why the agencies were issuing it at this particular time.

“This is likely in response to something that the intelligence community has identified but cannot release in detail without exposing sources, etc.,” Mark Sangster, vice president and industry security strategist at eSentire Inc., told Nextgov. “It’s a general warning with no specifics around methodology, tactics, lures, etc. This makes it more difficult to turn into actionable threat intelligence beyond the basics (employee awareness, password best practices, encryption, etc.)”

The R Street Institute’s Kathryn Waldron offered a simple reason the government might be seeing a surge in actions from North Korea that could have inspired the alert.  

“If COVID-19 related measures, like closing the border [with China, its main trading partner and lifeline] are hurting North Korea economically, the DPRK may be encouraging hackers to increase their activity for monetary gain,” she told Nextgov