Behind the huge cyberattack campaign in Latin America that no one has heard about

Large-scale cyber attacks are on the rise globally.
Large-scale cyber attacks are on the rise globally.
Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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For the past four years, a secret cyber-attack campaign, possibly state-sponsored, has been directed at several Latin American intelligence services, military, embassies and other government institutions. The Moscow-based cyber-security firm Kaspersky Lab, which claims to have unearthed the campaign, has given it a name: El Machete.

According to Kaspersky, the attacks started in 2010. Its Spanish-speaking roots are revealed in the source code of the attackers as well as the nature of the attacked. Most of the attacks’ victims are located in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and Spain. One target in Russia turned out to be an embassy of a Spanish-speaking country.


Attackers sent e-mails to potential victims with PowerPoint attachments containing pornographic material. Once the victims opened the attachment, their machines were compromised. This is a commonly used tactic known as spear phishing.

The malware that El Machete contains is capable of logging keystrokes; capturing audio from the computer’s microphone; capturing screenshots and geolocation data; taking photos from the computer’s web camera; copying files to a remote server or special USB device; and hijacking the clipboard and capturing information from the target machine.

Dmitry Bestuzhev, head of Kaspersky’s global research and analysis team for Latin America, says the attackers’ identities are unknown, but given the targets, he suspects it is a government actor in the region. That conclusion “is based on the exclusion rule,” Bestuzhev tells Quartz. “There are big players on the market so far: cybercriminals, and they look for money; hacktivists, and they look for media presence; and government[s], who look for secret documents and information like this.”

The data that was targeted, Bestuzhev says, was related to secret dossiers containing sensitive information—this suggests the campaign was not financially motivated. Which country may be the culprit, however, is virtually impossible to say because “the evidence we have doesn’t allow us to make a clear attribution,” says Bestuzhev.

Jen Weedon, who manages threat intelligence at the global cybersecurity company FireEye, agrees that there probably is a state actor at play. She says the types of targets chosen and malware used are “consistent [with what] another government would utilize or [with] an NGO paid by a government to do it.”

Kaspersky believes the El Machete campaign may still be active, but says that can’t be confirmed.