Kaspersky Lab released a report Monday revealing highly complex and sophisticated surveillance software created by what they are calling the “Equation Group”. The tools, malware and exploits used by the group—named after its penchant for encryption—have strong similarities with NSA techniques described in top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.
Kaspersky’s most striking finding is Equation Group’s ability to infect the firmware of a hard drive. One of the group’s malware platforms is able rewrite the hard-drive firmware of infected computers—a never-before-seen engineering marvel that worked on 12 drive categories from manufacturers including Western Digital, Maxtor, Samsung, IBM, Micron, Toshiba, and Seagate.
Kaspersky uncovered two versions of a mysterious module known only by a cryptic name: “nls_933w.dll”, used for reflashing or reprogramming firmware—one version for the EquationDrug platform the other for GrayFish. The EquationDrug version appears to have been compiled in 2010 while the GrayFish one bears a 2013 timestamp.
The malicious firmware created a secret storage vault that survived military-grade disk wiping and reformatting, making sensitive data stolen from victims available even after reformatting the drive and reinstalling the operating system. The firmware also provided programming interfaces that other code in Equation Group’s sprawling malware library could access. Once a hard drive was compromised, the infection was impossible to detect or remove.
While it’s simple for end users to re-flash their hard drives using executable files provided by manufacturers, it’s just about impossible for an outsider to reverse engineer a hard drive, read the existing firmware, and create malicious versions.
“Theoretically, we were aware of this possibility, but as far as I know this is the only case ever that we have seen of an attacker having such an incredibly advanced capability,” said Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab’s global research and analysis team, in a phone interview Monday.
“This is an incredibly complicated thing that was achieved by these guys, and they didn’t do it for one kind of hard drive brand,” Raiu said. “It’s very dangerous and bad because once a hard drive gets infected with this malicious payload it’s impossible for anyone, especially an antivirus [provider], to scan inside that hard drive firmware. It’s simply not possible to do that.”
A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky’s analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it.
Raiu said the authors of the spying programs must have had access to the proprietary source code that directs the actions of the hard drives. That code can serve as a roadmap to vulnerabilities, allowing those who study it to launch attacks much more easily.
“There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information,” Raiu said.
Concerns about access to source code flared after a series of high-profile cyberattacks on Google Inc and other U.S. companies in 2009 that were blamed on China. Investigators have said they found evidence that the hackers gained access to source code from several big U.S. tech and defense companies.
It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.
Seagate spokesman Clive Over said it has “secure measures to prevent tampering or reverse engineering of its firmware and other technologies.” Micron spokesman Daniel Francisco said the company took the security of its products seriously and “we are not aware of any instances of foreign code.”
Toshiba and Samsung declined to comment. IBM did not respond to requests for comment.
According to former intelligence operatives, the NSA has multiple ways of obtaining source code from tech companies, including asking directly and posing as a software developer. If a company wants to sell products to the Pentagon or another sensitive U.S. agency, the government can request a security audit to make sure the source code is safe.
“They don’t admit it, but they do say, ‘We’re going to do an evaluation, we need the source code,'” said Vincent Liu, a partner at security consulting firm Bishop Fox and former NSA analyst. “It’s usually the NSA doing the evaluation, and it’s a pretty small leap to say they’re going to keep that source code.”
The exposure of these new spying tools could lead to greater backlash against Western technology, particularly in countries such as China, which is already drafting regulations that would require most bank technology suppliers to proffer copies of their software code for inspection.
Peter Swire, one of five members of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, said the Kaspersky report showed that it is essential for the country to consider the possible impact on trade and diplomatic relations before deciding to use its knowledge of software flaws for intelligence gathering.
“There can be serious negative effects on other U.S. interests,” Swire said.