Dozens of cell phones belonging to senior government officials in South Korea were compromised by North Korean hackers who systematically targeted them with texts containing malicious codes, according to reports. The National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s primary intelligence agency, said the cell phone penetrations were part of a concerted campaign by North Korea to target smart phones belonging to South Korean senior government officials. Once they managed to compromise a cell phone, the hackers were able to access the call history stored on the device, the content of text messages exchanged with other users and, in some cases, the content of telephone calls placed on the compromised device. Moreover, according to the NIS, the hackers were able to access the contact lists stored on compromised cell phones, which means that more attacks may be taking place against cell phones belonging to South Korean government officials.
The breach was considered critical enough for the NIS to host an emergency executive meetingwith the security heads of 14 government ministries on Tuesday, in order to update them on the situation and to discuss ways of responding to the crisis. According to Korean media, the emergency meeting took place on Tuesday and lasted for over three hours. During the meeting the NIS told ministry representatives that the North Korean operation was launched in late February and was ongoing as of early this week. It specifically targeted government officials and appeared to concentrate on their cell phones, instead of their office phones –probably because the latter are known to be equipped with advanced anti-hacking features. The government employees’ cell phones were reportedly attacked using text messages and emails containing links to web sites that downloaded malicious codes on the users’ phones.
The NIS did not specify the precise purpose of the hacking operation, nor did it explain whether the attacks were informed by an overarching strategic goal. The officials targeted work for a variety of government ministries, but there is no clarification as to whether any operational or administrative links between them exist. The NIS did say, however, that approximately a fifth of all attacks against cell phones were successful in compromising the targeted devices.