Check Point successfully unveils 'VandaTheGod', person behind 7-year hacktivism campaign
Check Point has successfully brought down VandaTheGod, the person behind a 7-year hacktivism campaign.
Since 2013, many official websites belonging to governments worldwide were hacked and defaced by an attacker who self-identified as ’VandaTheGod.’ The hacker targeted governments in numerous countries, including South Africa, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Thailand, Vietnam, and New Zealand.
Many of the messages left on the defaced websites implied that the attacks were motivated by anti-government sentiment, and were carried out to combat social injustices that the hacker believed were a direct result of government corruption. Although the websites’ defacement gave VandaTheGod a lot of attention, the attacker's activity extended beyond that, to stealing credit card details and leaking sensitive personal credentials.
However, by closely examining those attacks, Check Point was able to map VandaTheGod's activity over the years, and has now uncovered the attacker’s real identity. The person behind the ‘VandaTheGod’ persona operated under multiple aliases in the past, such as ’Vanda de Assis’ or ’SH1N1NG4M3’, and was highly active on social media, primarily Twitter.
They would often share the results of those hacking endeavors with the public. A link to this Twitter account would sometimes even be added to the message VandaTheGod left on compromised websites, confirming that this profile was indeed managed by the attacker. Many of the tweets in this account were written in Portuguese. In addition, the attacker claimed to be a part of the "Brazilian Cyber Army" or "BCA", often displaying BCA's logo in screenshots of compromised accounts and websites.
VandaTheGod didn’t just go after government websites, but also launched attacks against public figures, universities, and even hospitals. In one case, the attacker claimed to have access to the medical records of 1 million patients from New Zealand, which were offered for sale for $200.
While public reports of hacking activity might sometimes deter an attacker from going after new targets, in this case the person appeared to enjoy the attention and would often boast about the reports mentioning VandaTheGod's accomplishments. They even uploaded some of the media coverage videos to the VandaTheGod YouTube channel.
Most of VandaTheGod's attacks against governments were politically motivated, but a closer look at some of tweets shows the attacker also trying to achieve a personal goal- hacking a total of 5,000 websites.
According to zone-h records, a service which records incidents of defaced websites, this goal was nearly reached, as there are currently 4,820 records of hacked websites linked to VandaTheGod. While most of these websites were hacked by mass scanning the internet for known vulnerabilities, the list also includes numerous government and academic websites, which VandaTheGod seems to have deliberately selected.
VandaTheGod's major role in several hacking groups, as well as their love of publicity, meant that they stayed in touch with others in the hacking community through numerous social media accounts, backup accounts in case of takedown, email addresses, websites and more. Through the years, this activity left a long trail of information for Check Point investigate.
For example, the WHOIS record for VandaTheGod.com showed that the website was registered to an individual from Brazil, more specifically from Uberlandia, using the e-mail address email@example.com. As it happens, in the past VandaTheGod claimed to be a member of the UGNazi hacking group. This e-mail address was used to register additional websites, such as braziliancyberarmy.com
However, this was not the only instance where the details shared online by VandaTheGod gave away valuable information about the attacker’s identity. For example, a screenshot showed the compromised email account of Brazilian actress and TV presenter Myrian Rios. However, the screenshot also shows an open Facebook tab with the name "Vanda De Assis", and looking that name up led to a profile belonging to the attacker. While this profile did not share any details about the real identity of VandaTheGod, Check Point was able to see many similarities between this and the Twitter accounts operated by the attacker, as the same content was often shared on both platforms.
What was more interesting, however, was that this screenshot revealed the name of a user that we will identify here only by initials: M. R. At first, the researchers were unsure if M. R. was VandaTheGod’s real initials, but decided it was worth investigating, as a first name with these initials also appeared in several screenshots shared in VandaTheGod's Twitter as the username of the machine used for this hacking activity.
The researchers also tried searching Facebook for people named M.R., but as expected, they were presented with too many possibilities to fully explore. Their breakthrough came when they searched for M.R. in conjunction with the city they had previously observed in vandathegod.com’s WHOIS information: "UBERLANDIA"
This still gave them numerous Facebook profiles, but they were able to locate a single account, which contained an uploaded image endorsing the Brazilian Cyber Army. At this point, they knew they were on the right track. All that was left for them to do was to connect this individual's account with one of the known VandaTheGod's accounts.
They were able to locate several cross-posts between the newly discovered profile and Vanda de Assis’s Facebook account. Finally, they located shared photos of the same surroundings from different angles, specifically, the poster's living room. This confirmed that both the M.R. and VandaTheGod accounts were being controlled by the same individual.
Ultimately, Check Point was able to connect the VandaTheGod identity with high certainty to a specific Brazilian individual from the city of Uberlândia, and relayed their findings to law enforcement to enable them to take further action.
All of the detailed social media profiles still exist, but many of the photos in the attacker's personal profile that overlap with those shared by the VandaTheGod alias were later deleted. Moreover, the activity on these profiles came to a halt toward the end of 2019, and the person has not posted any updates since.
Table showing the number of hacked websites, per country, in the time frame between May2019-May2020 according to h-zone records: