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A long and elaborate campaign to dupe NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan

Malware

Senior journalist and news anchor Nidhi Razdan was all set to start teaching at Harvard University this year. But it turns out she appears to have been a victim of a elaborate phishing campaign through which actors behind the attack gained access to her device and email/social media accounts. Razdan broke word of the scam in a statement on Twitter Friday evening.

In June 2020, the former New Delhi Television anchor said that she had been been offered a position at Harvard as an Associate Professor of Journalism and was therefore leaving the TV channel. “I had been given to believe that I would be joining the University in September 2020. While I was making preparations to take up my new assignment in January 2021. Along with these delays, I began noticing a number of administrative anomalies in the process being described to me,” she said.

“After hearing from the University, I have now learnt that I have been the victim of a sophisticated and coordinated phishing attack. I did not, in fact, receive an offer by Harvard University to join their faculty as an Associate Professor of Journalism. The perpetrators of this attack used clever forgeries and misrepresentations to obtain access to my personal data and communications and may have also gained access to my devices and my email/social media accounts,” she said in her statement.

Further, in a blogpost on NDTV, Razdan explained how she fell for the scam. Razdan declined to comment when MediaNama reached out to her. She said on Twitter that she had filed a police complaint against the perpetrators of the scam.

Modus Operandi

  • In November 2019, Razdan attends an event at Harvards’ Kennedy School for Public Policy
  • An organiser from the event begins an email correspondent with her beginning in January 2020 stating that there was a vacancy for a teaching position
  • Razdan submits her CV and is interviewed for 90 minutes a few weeks later
  • The interview seemed “legitimate”, “thorough and professional,” she says
  • At the same time Razdan received emails from an apparent representative of Harvard’s Human Resources Department
  • These actors emailed other journalists and Razdan’s colleagues at NDTV for recommendation letters
  • These emails appeared to be from an official Harvard email ID, with an offer letter and agreement.
  • They had the “genuine letterhead with the University insignia, and contained the “signatures” of all senior Harvard University officials,” the blog says
  • Emails impersonate Harvard  senior staff and forge signatures of its Vice President of HR and Chief Financial Officer
  • Over the following months provided information for a work visa
  • In June 2020 Razdan leaves NDTV to join Harvard as an Associate Professor for journalism at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Classes which were supposedly scheduled to start in September 2020 are postponed to October and then to January, with the pandemic cited as the reason
  • In December, Razdan writes to Harvard’s HR Department and in January to the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

“It was only earlier this week that I heard back from them telling me there was no record of my appointment and that the people claiming to be their HR staff do not exist! I wrote back to Harvard expressing shock at this and urged them to take this matter seriously since there are people impersonating their senior staff and even forging their signatures on fake letterheads, including the Vice President of HR and their Chief Financial Officer.” — Razdan’s Blogpost

No full-time journalism program at Harvard

  • Harvard only offers a journalism program through its Extension school and not through has a Master’s in Liberal Arts program, in the field of journalism
  • Harvard’s Extension school is an open-admission program and does not have a full-time faculty.
  • In a Twitter post, Joshua Benton, the former director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, says the university  has no school of journalism, no department of journalism, and no professors of journalism
  • Benton says Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences doesn’t have any journalism professors or offer any journalism degree
  • Harvard hosts the Nieman Foundation, a fellowship program for journalism, and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which does not have a specific journalism faculty, Benton said.
  • In a statement to the Boston Globe, Harvard says a review: found “no record of, nor any knowledge of, an appointment involving Ms. Nidhi Razdan.”
  • The statement also says that the job agreement has a number of “irregularities” and the names of employees in the documents shared by Razdan are not in their employee system

A  long and elaborate campaign

While this case might be just as simple as a random internet hacker or fraudster trying to dupe Razdan for a a few thousands of Rupees, it is unlikely to be the case given the amount of time and effort. Beginning in November 2019 onwards, Razdan would have been targeted by these actors in an elaborate social engineering attack which sought to offer her a job using documents and emails that appeared legitimate.

The purpose of this attack, though still unclear, seems to be targeting Razdan’s personal devices and internet accounts, as per her statement. This means that at any stage the attackers could have planted a malware in any of the documents and emails, which would automatically download onto her personal laptop or mobile when opened. This malware could gain backdoor access to her banking apps, call records, text messages and documents she may possess. Clearly, there was a specific intent to target Razdan, who has had a 21 year career in journalism and is well-known across the country, by these actors over a period of time. Had the purpose of this attack been short-sighted, a few thousand Rupees here or there, it would not have lasted for months on end.

According to Delhi-based lawyer Prassana S, the role of a state actor cannot be ruled out as it is a “weapons-grade attack.” “1. Precision social engineering to know her inclinations and ambitions 2. Attacker has also compromised the Harvard end to manage all the usual sanity checks. 3. Job offer a pretext to make her do other things. Not just announce to the world. Including to get into her devices,” he said in a series of tweets.

Over the last decade, we have been witness to a growing government surveillance machinery beginning with Aadhaar  and ending up with NATGRID, among others. The surveillance architecture has also grown under the present government with policies that mandate the use of Aadhaar across government services, while police departments are encouraged to adopt artificial intelligence tools, drones and facial and biometric recognition software.

In October 2019, it was revealed that the Israel-based NSO Group had developed a malware called Pegasus which could crack WhatsApp’s encryption. In India, there more than two dozen targeted users include Nagpur-based Human Rights lawyer Nihalsingh Rathod, Adivasi activists Bela Bhatia and Degree Prasad Chauhan, Shalini Gera of Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, Anand Teltumbde, a former BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary, amongst others.

Thereafter, in March 2020, Caravan Magazine had reported that a cyber-forensic examination of Prison-rights activist Rona Wilson’s laptop had a malware which allowed remote access to the computer allowing the hacker to plant files. Letters found by the Pune Police on Wilson’s laptop, allegedly detailing a conspiracy to instigate violence on December 31, 2017 at Bhima Koregaon in Maharastra. These letters were then used to implicate Wilson and 15 other activists and academics under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which was amended in July 2019.

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