Digital fingerprints on Red October spyware point to Russia ... or do they?
Western experts who have reviewed a Russia-based report on Red October are divided over whodunnit, cyberspies in Russia or some other perpetrator. The Red October cyberspy campaign, uncovered this week, has one of the broadest geographic spreads ever identified.
In one of the largest cyberespionage networks ever uncovered, cyberspies operating through a global web of computer servers have over five years siphoned libraries' worth of diplomatic and proprietary data, sensitive documents, e-mails, and passwords from hundreds of government and industry sites worldwide.Skip to next paragraph
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Dubbed Red October, the cyberspy campaign began in 2007, targeting networks inside embassies and research institutes, trade and commerce offices, and energy, aerospace, and defense firms in more than 20 countries. Most targets were in Eastern Europe, but some were in North America and Western European, according to Kaspersky, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm that unveiled Red October this week.
Besides vacuuming up data and stealing electronic files, the Red October spyware is a utility-knife-style malware that can also infiltrate smartphones, networking equipment, and removable hard drives. After stealing data, it then wipes away any trace it has ever been on those devices.
Even so, tidbits found inside the malicious software code led Kaspersky researchers to reach a startling conclusion: The cyberspies, whoever they are, have a strong connection with their motherland.
"We strongly believe that the attackers have Russian-speaking origins," the company's report concludes. "We've counted several hundreds of infections worldwide – all of them in top locations such as government networks and diplomatic institutions. The infections we've identified are distributed mostly in Eastern Europe, but there are also reports coming from North America and Western European countries such as Switzerland or Luxembourg."
First on the list with the most infections is Russia, where the Red October malware has been detected on 35 systems. Next come Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and on down to 11th-place United States, with six infections, Kaspersky reported. Some others, including Canada, Britain, and China, had no infections listed.
With the malware's digital signatures revealed, updated antivirus software has now made Red October largely ineffective. But at its height the espionage web was extraordinarily complex. Attackers created more than 60 domain names linked to dozens of server computers located mostly in Germany and Russia. That chain of servers served as "proxies" to hide the locations of the mini-mothership servers and, finally, a central "mothership" server.
"The ... infrastructure is actually a chain of servers working as proxies and hiding the location of the true 'mothership' command and control server," the report said.
For complexity, the Red October cyberspy network is on par with recent cyberespionage campaigns involving Flame malware, said Igor Soumenkov, a malware expert with Kaspersky Labs, in an interview with the Monitor's Fred Weir. The Flame spyware was detected in Iran, Sudan, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Egypt last year. Flame, however, has been linked by Kaspersky and Symantec to the Stuxnet cyberweapon directed to attack Iran's nuclear centrifuge complex in 2009.
Even so, Red October "can hardly be referred to as state-sponsored. It is unknown whether the collected data was used by attackers themselves, or was sold to other interested parties," Mr. Soumenkov said.
Technical obfuscation crafted by Red October's creators kept Kaspersky researchers from reaching the "mothership" and determining who was behind the malware.
Many other uncertainties remain about Red October, and one question concerns which institutions and embassies were actually targeted. The Kaspersky data show that a foreign embassy in the US was infected. But which one? And do all those infections in Russia imply that Russian government institutions were victimized, or rather foreign institutions operating inside Russia?
Kaspersky officials say their investigation is ongoing and won't release target names, something that may give many clues about the identity of the perpetrator. The company says an anonymous source tipped it off to the spy network's existence.