Israeli high-tech company Outbrain was the weak link that enabled hackers to target major U.S. news sites including CNN, Time and the Washington Post last week, Reuters reported.
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The hackers managed to redirect some of the traffic from the websites of the Washington Post and Time to the website of the Syrian Electronic Army, after users clicked on content promoted via Outbrain.
Outbrain has an algorithm that suggests related articles to readers. Its links generally appear at the bottom of articles.
The Syrian Electronic Army is an online group that supports Syrian President Bashar Assad and has been linked to several high-profile digital attacks. They include one on the Twitter feed of the Associated Press, in which a bogus message was sent out about explosions at the White House.
The latest attacks were significant because the hackers simultaneously targeted several sites by breaching a single supplier whose content is published on multiple platforms.
Hackers gained access to Outbrain's platform after an employee fell for a phishing attempt.
Outbrain said the hackers sent a phishing email to all company employees on Wednesday that purported to be from the CEO. An employee provided login credentials in response to that email and then the hackers were able to get other credentials for accessing internal systems, the company said.
Outbrain, which posts content on a large number of prominent news sites, took down its entire network at about 11 A.M. EDT (1500 GMT) on Thursday, before the hackers could do any more damage, Outbrain Vice President Lisa LaCour told Reuters.
Time and CNN, both owned by Time Warner, and the Washington Post all said they believed that their sites had not been impacted by anything besides the attack on Outbrain.
Outbrain was founded by Yaron Galai and Ori Lahav. It employs 200 people, 70 of them in Israel, with the others in New York and in 15 sales offices around the world. The company does not reveal financial details, but reports overseas claim a turnover of tens of millions of dollars, with hints that this is rapidly growing.
With reporting by Reuters.