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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.

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Despite this, Red October reminds some experts of a previous cyberespionage program. That one, GhOstNet, crossed continents and scores of organizations and was found to have a common focal point: Tibet-Chinese relations, Canadian researchers found in 2009. Those researchers, after tracing the IP addresses of servers to China, could not be certain whether the Chinese government or other cyberespionage groups inside China were behind the GhOstNet spying program.

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Kaspersky's report identifies a Russian software language set used to create the core Red October spyware program, but it also notes that other "exploit" programs associated with the China-based GhOstNet attack were used, too.

Those exploits "were created by other attackers and employed during different cyber attacks against Tibetan activists as well as military and energy sector targets in Asia," Kaspersky's report says. "The only thing that was changed is the executable which was embedded in the document; the attackers replaced it with their own code."

Still, "there is no evidence linking this with a nation-state sponsored attack," Kaspersky's report concludes, implying cybercriminals may be behind Red October.

US experts who have reviewed the Kaspersky report are divided over who might be behind the malware – a crafty Russian crime syndicate harvesting sensitive information and selling it or holding it for ransom, or a sophisticated nation state, such as China, that devised the malware to make it appear to be Russian.

Either way, the duration and scope of the Red October campaign suggest an "Advanced Persistent Threat," or APT – a term that has become shorthand in recent years for years'-long, 24/7, Chinese cyberspying activities.

China is always a suspect in such cases, cyberespionage experts say. In this one, China is one of the few countries with no Red October infections. Of course, Canada and Britain don't either. 

"The most interesting thing about Red October, in my opinion, is that it looks a lot like the Chinese pretending to be Russian," says David Aitel, CEO of Immunity Inc., a Miami-based cybersecurity company. "The one major country not targeted is China. If this was a Russian team, you're not going to target Uganda before you target China. It was a really good job of pretending to be Russian. But the targets never lie; the one thing they can't hide is what they're targeting."

But to John Bumgarner, research director for the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit group that studies cyberthreats, the Kaspersky report is more than suggestive about Russia's cyberactivities.

"This report provides the hard evidence that Russia is a major player in cyberespionage," he says. "The United States and China are the other key players in this cold-war-style game of cyberespionage."

Buried in the Red October spyware is the word "PROGA," which might be a transliteration of slang among Russian-speaking software engineers that literally means an application or a program, Kaspersky reported. Another word, "Zakladka," in Russian can mean "bookmark" or, more likely, is slang for "a microphone embedded in a brick of the embassy building" – the sort of clandestine intelligence-gathering conducted by both Russia and the US in the 1950s and '60s.

One cybersecurity expert, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position, says the Kaspersky report's conclusions have teeth.

"This is not the first time we've seen Russia, very recently, becoming a player in the cyberespionage game," he says. "This stuff [the slang in the software] is really very hard to fake."

Any whodunnit is impossible to sole without more information, says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at the antivirus firm Sophos, in Oxford, England, in a phone interview. But the findings so far are reminiscent of another period of deliberate obfuscation.

"It is such a tangled web, really a bit like tactics from the cold war," Mr. Cluley says. "Yes, it's possible to analyze a piece of code and see the language setting on the compiler and say, 'Hey, this setting is for Russian and assume it comes from there.'

"But with stakes so high, it's equally possible that someone in Belgium, Canada, or China is just trying to mislead," he adds. "I wouldn't fall off my chair in shock if China was behind it after all."

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