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Russian hackers impersonate U.S. officials to infect computers with malware: reseachers

Hackers linked to the Russian government are impersonating U.S. State Department employees in an operation aimed at infecting computers of U.S. government agencies, think-tanks and businesses, two cybersecurity firms told Reuters.

Operation aimed to install malware and access U.S. government agencies, law enforcement and others

Hackers linked to the Russian government sent emails that appeared to come from State Department public affairs specialist Susan Stevenson and encouraged recipients to download malicious documents.

Hackers linked to the Russian government are impersonating U.S. State Department employees in an operation aimed at infecting computers of U.S. government agencies, think-tanks and businesses, two cybersecurity firms told Reuters.

The operation, which began on Wednesday, suggests Russia is keen to resume an aggressive campaign of attacks on U.S. targets after a lull going into the Nov. 6 U.S. midterm election in which Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, according to CrowdStrike and FireEye Inc.

U.S. intelligence agencies have charged that Russia was behind a string of hacks in the 2016 presidential campaign in a bid to boost support for Donald Trump. The U.S. government and private cybersecurity firms have said Russia was not behind hacking campaigns in this month's congressional elections. 

In the newly discovered operation, hackers linked to the Russian government sent emails purporting to come from State Department public affairs specialist Susan Stevenson, according to a sample phishing email reviewed by Reuters. 

It encouraged recipients to download malicious documents that claimed to be from Heather Nauert, a State Department official who Trump has said he is considering naming ambassador to the United Nations.

That file would install malicious software that would grant hackers wide access to their systems, according to FireEye.

More than 20 FireEye customers were targeted, including military agencies, law enforcement, defence contractors, media companies and pharmaceutical companies, according to the cybersecurity firm. 

CrowdStrike and FireEye did not say how many organizations had been compromised in the campaign or identify specific targets. 

Gained access through hospital, consulting company

The hackers are part of a group known as APT29, according to FireEye. Dutch intelligence has said that APT29, also known as Cozy Bear, works for the​ SVR Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Moscow-based cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab confirmed that the campaign was the work of APT29, and said the group had not been active since last year. 

Representatives at the Russian embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment. Moscow has repeatedly denied allegations that it was behind APT29 or other hacking campaigns targeting the United States. 

The attackers first compromised a hospital and a consulting company, then used their infrastructure to send phishing emails that appeared to be secure communication from the State Department, FireEye researcher Nick Carr told Reuters.

A State Department spokesperson said he had no immediate comment.

On Friday, Trump signed legislation to create a new cybersecurity agency within the Department of Homeland Security.  

The administration said the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) will serve as the focal point for defending civilian and federal networks to protect critical infrastructure including the nation's election security.

Trump previously said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed jointly forming an "impenetrable cybersecurity unit" but backtracked on the idea after he was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted.

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