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RAT-flingers target human right activists in watering-hole attack

Jeux sans Frontières

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The Reporters without Borders website was compromised on Tuesday to run a watering-hole attack. Researchers speculated that the attackers were likely targeting the human rights activists who visit the NGO's online address.

So-called watering hole attacks are named for the passive technique of injecting malicious code where its intended victims are likely to find it - akin to poisoning a watering hole to target a particular group of wildebeest who are known to refresh themselves there.

The website of the French-based international non-governmental organisation, which advocates freedom of the press and freedom of information, was booby-trapped with exploits targeting recently patched Internet Explorer and Java vulnerabilities. The miscreants behind the attack are trying to target visitors to the site who have not yet updated with either the emergency IE patch release released last week or the Java update released around the same time.

The attack was picked up net security firm Avast, which notified Reporters Without Borders' (Reporters sans Frontières) website admins about the problem. The site was cleaned up by Tuesday afternoon.

Avast, which said the same attack appeared on the website of a "major" Hong Kong political party last week, said the latest phase of the assault was likely targeted against human rights activists who had visited the site. China has both the capability and motivation to pull off this sort of mischief and is by far the most likely culprit.

"Such an organization [RWB] is an ideal target for a watering hole campaign, as it seems right now the miscreants concentrate only on human rights/political sites – many Tibetan, some Uygur, and some political parties in Hong Kong and Taiwan which are the latest hits in this operation," writes Jindřich Kubec, a security researcher at Avast. "In our opinion the finger could be safely pointed to China (again)."

The RWB attack, which bears some technical similarities to attacks carried out two years ago, is ultimately designed to deploy remote access Trojans (RATs), which give the intruder administrative control over the targeted computer. A blog post by Avast explaining the technical details of the Reporters without Borders’ attack can be found here. ®

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