Lily Hay Newman
From cryptocurrency thefts to intrusions into telecom giants, state-backed attackers have had a field day in the year’s first half.
Whether the first six months of 2022 have felt interminable or fleeting—or both—massive hacks, data breaches, digital scams, and ransomware attacks continued apace throughout the first half of this complicated year. With the Covid-19 pandemic, economic instability, geopolitical unrest, and bitter human rights disputes grinding on around the world, cybersecurity vulnerabilities and digital attacks have proved to be thoroughly enmeshed in all aspects of life.
With another six months left in the year, though, there’s more still to come. Here are the biggest digital security debacles that have played out so far.
For years, Russia has aggressively and recklessly mounted digital attacks against Ukraine, causing blackouts, attempting to skew elections, stealing data, and releasing destructive malware to rampage across the country—and the world. After invading Ukraine in February, though, the digital dynamic between the two countries has changed as Russia struggles to support a massive and costly kinetic war and Ukraine mounts resistance on every front it can think of. This has meant that while Russia has continued to pummel Ukrainian institutions and infrastructure with cyberattacks, Ukraine has also been hacking back with surprising success. Ukraine formed a volunteer “IT Army” at the beginning of the war, which has focused on mounting DDoS attacks and disruptive hacks against Russian institutions and services to cause as much chaos as possible. Hacktivists from around the world have also turned their attention—and digital firepower—toward the conflict. And as Ukraine launches other types of hacks against Russia, including attacks utilizing custom malware, Russia has suffered data breaches and service disruptions at an unprecedented scale.
The digital extortion gang Lapsus$ went on an extreme hacking bender in the first months of 2022. The group emerged in December and began stealing source code and other valuable data from increasingly prominent and sensitive companies—including Nvidia, Samsung, and Ubisoft—before leaking it in apparent extortion attempts. The spree reached its zenith in March when the group announced that it had breached and leaked portions of Microsoft Bing and Cortana source code and compromised a contractor with access to the internal systems of the ubiquitous authentication service Okta. The attackers, who appeared to be based in the United Kingdom and South America, largely relied on phishing attacks to gain access to targets’ systems. At the end of March, British police arrested seven people believed to have associations with the group and charged two at the beginning of April. Lapsus$ seemed to briefly continue to operate following the arrests but then became dormant.
In one of the most disruptive ransomware attacks to date, Russia-linked cybercrime gang Conti brought Costa Rica to a screeching halt in April—and the disruptions would last for months. The group’s attack on the country’s Ministry of Finance paralyzed Costa Rica’s import/export businesses, causing losses of tens of millions of dollars a day. So serious was the attack that Costa Rica’s president declared a “national emergency”—the first country to do so because of a ransomware attack—and one security expert described Conti’s campaign as “unprecedented.” A second attack in late May, this one on the Costa Rican Social Security Fund, was attributed to the Conti-linked HIVE ransomware and caused widespread disruptions to the country’s health care system. While Conti’s attack on Costa Rica is historic, some believe that it was meant as a diversion while the gang attempts to rebrand to evade sanctions against Russia over its war with Ukraine.
As the cryptocurrency ecosystem has evolved, tools and utilities for storing, converting, and otherwise managing it have developed at breakneck speed. Such rapid expansion has come with its share of oversights and missteps, though. And cybercriminals have been eager to capitalize on these mistakes, frequently stealing vast troves of cryptocurrency worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. At the end of March, for example, North Korea’s Lazarus Group memorably stole what at the time was $540 million worth of Ethereum and USDC stablecoin from the popular Ronin blockchain “bridge.” Meanwhile, in February, attackers exploited a flaw in the Wormhole bridge to grab what was then about $321 million worth of Wormhole’s Ethereum variant. And in April, attackers targeted the stablecoin protocol Beanstalk, granting themselves a “flash loan” to steal about $182 million worth of cryptocurrency at the time.
Health care providers and hospitals have long been a favorite target of ransomware actors, who look to create maximum urgency to entice victims to pay up in the hopes of restoring their digital systems. But health care data breaches have also continued in 2022 as criminals pool data they can monetize through identity theft and other types of financial fraud. In June, the Massachusetts-based service provider Shields Health Care Group disclosed that it suffered a data breach throughout much of March impacting roughly 2 million people in the United States. The stolen data included names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and billing information, as well as medical information like diagnoses and medical record indicators. In Texas, patients of Baptist Health System and Resolute Health Hospital announced a similar breach in June that exposed similar data, including Social Security numbers and sensitive patient medical information. Both Kaiser Permanente and Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona also disclosed data breaches in June.
At the beginning of June, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that Chinese government-backed hackers had breached a number of sensitive victims worldwide, including “major telecommunications companies.” They did so, according to CISA, by targeting known router vulnerabilities and bugs in other network equipment, including those made by Cisco and Fortinet among other vendors. The warning did not identify any specific victims, but it hinted at alarm over the findings and a need for organizations to step up their digital defenses, especially when handling massive quantities of sensitive user data. “The advisory details the targeting and compromise of major telecommunications companies and network service providers,” CISA wrote. “Over the last few years, a series of high-severity vulnerabilities for network devices provided cyber actors with the ability to regularly exploit and gain access to vulnerable infrastructure devices. In addition, these devices are often overlooked.”
Separately, hackers likely conducting Chinese espionage breached News Corp in an intrusion that was discovered by the company on January 20. Attackers accessed journalists’ emails and other documents as part of the breach. News Corp owns a number of high-profile news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and its parent, Dow Jones, the New York Post, and several publications in Australia.
Just days after a consequential US Supreme Court decision at the end of June pertaining to concealed-carry permit laws, an unrelated data breach potentially exposed the information of everyone who applied for a concealed-carry permit in California between 2011 and 2021. The incident impacted data including names, ages, addresses, and license types. The breach occurred after a misconfiguration in the California Department of Justice 2022 Firearms Dashboard Portal exposed data that should not have been publicly accessible. “This unauthorized release of personal information is unacceptable and falls far short of my expectations for this department,” state attorney general Rob Bonta said in a statement. “The California Department of Justice is entrusted to protect Californians and their data. We acknowledge the stress this may cause those individuals whose information was exposed. I am deeply disturbed and angered.”
Wired, July 4, 2022