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United Arab Emirates planned to target Intercept magazine

by on13 June 2019

Foreigners hire American hacker teams to take down Americans.

US hackers at a controversial cybersecurity firm working for the United Arab Emirates government looked at hacking a US tech magazine for their Arab overlords.

The DarkMatter plan was to hack The Intercept and breach the computers of its employees.

The move was part of a crackdown against dissidents and critics of the Emirati government, code-named Project Raven, began in Baltimore. What got the UAE’s goat was an article in 2016 by reporter Jenna McLaughlin that revealed how the Maryland-based computer security firm CyberPoint assembled a team of Americans for a contract to hone UAE’s budding hacking and surveillance capabilities, leaving some recruits unsettled.

Much of the CyberPoint team was later poached by DarkMatter, a firm with close ties to the Emirati government and headquartered just two floors from the Emirati equivalent of the NSA, the National Electronic Security Authority, which later became the Signals Intelligence Agenc).

One of McLaughlin’s sources described the episode as something of a “hostile takeover” by the UAE government. NESA would go on to become Project Raven’s primary “client,” responsible for handing down groups and organizations to be targeted and compromised.

According to the hacking team source who chatted to The Intercept, the 2016 reporting revealing the connection between DarkMatter and the Emirati government made The Intercept a target. “When [McLaughlin’s first] article hit, it mentioned DarkMatter, so we had to tiger team a response to that”, said the source.

Following several news reports tying DarkMatter to Emirati government surveillance, DarkMatter chief financial officer Samer Khalife moved some Americans from DarkMatter to a new company, Connection Systems.

The purpose of the new company was to create the appearance that DarkMatter no longer conducted surveillance and cyberoperations on behalf of the Emirati government. However, Khalife installed his brother as the company’s nominal boss, so it was pretty obvious, particularly when the information was posted on Linkedin.

The Intercept was unable to find evidence of an attack by DarkMatter on its computers. But the targeting would have happened in 2016, so it’s possible that malicious messages were rejected by a spam filter or discarded in the intervening years.

In an email to The Intercept, DarkMatter’s marketing chief Priscilla Dunn said the company “rejects” the claim that it targeted The Intercept in retaliation for prior coverage. Dunn declined to specifically deny that this discussion took place and refused to comment on the existence of Project Raven or the company’s collaboration with the NESA, providing instead the following statement:

“Our work in cyber security is single-mindedly focused on defensive capabilities. Our values and principles call for us to have the highest impact on the societies and economies we serve. We develop our own intellectual property and partner with vetted global-technology companies and the government to develop cybersecurity products, solutions and services that are all in public view on our website.  Cyber security is still a relatively young field and the discussion around it is increasingly polarized. DarkMatter wants to be part of this discussion and has been a leading voice in the media and in forums on how to build cyber resilient societies, economies and institutions.”

Last modified on 13 June 2019
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