The foreign ministry neither confirmed nor denied a New York Times report claiming hackers had targeted Cyprus’ diplomats and exposed thousands of EU diplomatic cables by using a ‘run-of-the-mill’ phishing campaign.
Ministry spokesman Demetris Samuel told state radio “we don’t want to confirm or deny,” in line with policy not to comment on security matters.
Samuel said, however, that the ministry has been targeted by hackers many times in the past and it was taking measures against such attacks.
He said the systems were continuously being reviewed and upgraded to keep up with the ever-evolving methods employed by hackers.
“One cannot be complacent,” he said.
Quoting the CEO of American security company Area 1, Oren Falkowitz, the New York Times said the phishing campaign pierced through the island’s systems and obtained passwords needed to communicate with the EU’s entire database of exchanges.
“People talk about sophisticated hackers, but there was nothing really sophisticated about this,” Falkowitz said.
After getting into the Cyprus system, the hackers had access to passwords that were needed to connect to the European Union’s entire database of exchanges.
Area 1’s investigators said they believed the hackers worked for the Strategic Support Force of the People’s Liberation Army, part of an organisation that emerged from the Chinese signals intelligence agency that was once called 3PLA.
“After over a decade of experience countering Chinese cyberoperations and extensive technical analysis, there is no doubt this campaign is connected to the Chinese government,” said Blake Darche, one of Area 1’s experts.
After burrowing into the European network, called COREU (or Courtesy), the hackers had the run of communications linking the European Union’s 28 countries, on topics ranging from trade and tariffs to terrorism to summaries of summit meetings, from the vital to the insignificant.
In a statement, the EU said it “is aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and is actively investigating the issue.”
However, the EU did not further comment on the issue saying that it does not discuss allegations or matters relating to operational security.
The European cables are reminiscent of the WikiLeaks publication of 250,000 State Department cables in 2010. But they are not as extensive and consist of low-level classified documents that were labelled limited and restricted.
Many of the reports were the ordinary business of diplomacy — weekly reports from missions from places like Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Russia, China, Ukraine and Washington, and included descriptions of conversations with leaders and other diplomats or visits to non-European countries.