A Russian Cyber Spy Group Might Have Tried to Hack the MH17 Investigation

An analysis of the Dutch Safety Board’s computer system revealed suspicious activity likely carried out by Russian spy group Pawn Storm.
October 23, 2015, 9:40pm
Photo by Michael Kooern/Reuters

A cyber attack and spy group believed to have ties with the Russian government reportedly attempted to hack the Dutch agency tasked with investigating the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 disaster, according to a software security firm.

An analysis of the Dutch Safety Board's computer system revealed suspicious activity likely carried out by Russian spy group Pawn Storm attempted to access the accounts of officials tasked with the investigation, cybersecurity company Trend Micro reported on Thursday.

The results of the safety board's investigation were released in October, after months of probing the details of the July 17 incident when the plane crashed in eastern Ukraine — during the height of the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists — killing all 298 people on board.

According to Trend Micro's findings, attackers used a fake server to launch attacks against the investigation staff. A fake email server was also utilized. In a press release, Trend Micro said it notified the safety board before any information was accessed.

"These discoveries show that it is very likely that Pawn Storm coordinated attacks against different organizations to get sensitive information on the MH17 plane crash," the company said.

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Speaking to AFP, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Safety Board said the cyber incidents had been uncovered, but did not provide details on who they thought the perpetrators were. She also said there was "no evidence" the efforts had succeeded.

Pawns Storm is a cyber spy campaign that experts believe has connections with the Russian government. In the past, the group is believed to have carried out attacks against the White House, NATO, and Syrian opposition. Trend Micro reported that Pawn Storm is boosting its attack efforts targeting the Syrian groups, along with other countries in the region that have spoken out against Russia.

The findings of the MH17 investigation were controversial, with Russia immediately denouncing them as biased. The Dutch Safety Board, which was not empowered to address questions of responsibility, concluded the aircraft was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile. Investigators did not specify who launched the missile.

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Both Russian and Ukrainian military forces possess BUK missile systems. Pro-Russia rebels have been blamed by the West and Ukraine for bringing down the plane, whereas Russia has claimed that the missile was fired from the Ukrainian-controlled region.

Just before the release of the final report, the Russian manufacturer of BUK missile systems Almaz-Antey published its own findings into the crash saying it had conducted experiments demonstrated the missile could not have been fired from territory controlled by pro-Russia rebels. Instead it must have been fired from Ukrainian government-controlled territory, it claimed.

Following the release of the Dutch Safety Board report, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that the priority was finding and prosecuting the perpetrators.

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