Latin American Hacking Group Targets Dissidents, Journalists

Report finds that cyber attackers known as ‘Packrat’ were likely linked to state actors

December 18, 2015

A group of hackers linked to the governments of Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil have waged a systematic campaign in recent years to target journalists and the political opposition in those countries, according to a new investigation.

The report from Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research group, designated the cadre of hackers as "Packrat" and said they used malware, phishing, and disinformation techniques to attack government opponents. Citizen Lab determined that Packrat was most likely sponsored by a state actor or actors.

The group Human Rights Foundation highlighted the Citizen Lab investigation in a press release:

"Technological progress has changed the way we work, communicate, and live our lives. It has given us the tools to connect and advance liberty in distant places. However, it has also given authoritarian regimes the means to surveil, threaten, and oppress whistleblowers and dissidents," said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. "The conventional intelligence agent in plain clothes has been replaced by highly-trained cyber-thugs who carry out criminal hacking operations. They can destroy equipment, issue credible death threats, seriously harm the credibility of an activist, and, even worse, fabricate evidence to secure a wrongful conviction," Halvorssen added.

According to an independent investigation published last week by Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Toronto, "a number of journalists, activists, politicians, and public figures in Latin America have been targeted by a large-scale hacking campaign since 2008." The evidence presented by the report strongly suggests that the perpetrators of these attacks are part of a group of hackers—labeled "Packrat" by the authors of the investigation—who are likely "sponsored by a state actor or actors, given their apparent lack of concern about discovery, their targets, and their persistence." A noteworthy strategy used by Packrat has been building and maintaining fake opposition groups and news organizations’ websites, and then "us[ing] these to distribute malware and conduct phishing attacks." The most plausible hypothesis agreed by the authors is that the "ultimate recipient of the information collected by Packrat is likely one or more governments in the region."

One of Packrat’s targets was Alberto Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor who accused former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of covering up Iran’s involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Days after making the allegations, he was found dead in his apartment.

Published under: Cyber Security