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Kaspersky Shares More Details on NSA Incident

Kaspersky Lab on Thursday shared more details from its investigation into reports claiming that Russian hackers stole data belonging to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) by exploiting the company’s software.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that hackers working for the Russian government stole information on how the U.S. penetrates foreign networks and how it defends against cyberattacks. The files were allegedly taken in 2015 from the personal computer of an NSA contractor who had been using a security product from Kaspersky Lab.

The WSJ article suggested that Kaspersky either knowingly helped the Russian government obtain the files or that the hackers exploited vulnerabilities in the company’s software without the firm’s involvement.

In a preliminary report, Kaspersky said the incident referenced in the WSJ article likely took place in 2014, when the company was investigating malware used by the Equation Group, a threat actor later associated with the NSA.

In a more technical report published on Thursday, Kaspersky said the incident likely occurred between September 11, 2014 and November 17, 2014 – the security firm believes WSJ’s source may have mixed up the dates.

In September 2014, Kaspersky’s products detected malware associated with the Equation Group on a device with an IP address pointing to the Baltimore area in Maryland. It’s worth noting that the NSA headquarters are in Fort Meade, Maryland, less than 20 miles from the city of Baltimore.

The Kaspersky product present on the device automatically sent an archive containing the suspected malware files back to the company’s systems for further analysis. The said archive contained source code for Equation malware, along with four documents with classification markings (e.g. secret, confidential).

The Kaspersky analyst who found the archive informed the company’s CEO of its content and the decision was made to remove the files from its storage systems.

So is it possible that the classified files were somehow obtained by Russian actors from Kaspersky’s systems? The firm denies spying for the Russian government and claims the data was removed from its systems – only some statistics and metadata remain – but it cannot guarantee that its employees handled the data appropriately.

“We cannot assess whether the data was ‘handled appropriately’ (according to US Government norms) since our analysts have not been trained on handling US classified information, nor are they under any legal obligation to do so,” the company said.

While Kaspersky admitted that its systems were breached in 2015 by a threat group linked to Israeli intelligence, the company said it found no evidence that the NSA files left its systems.

As for the assumption that Kaspersky’s products may have been specifically configured to look for secret files on the systems they were installed on, the company said all the signatures for retrieving files from a user’s device are carefully handled and verified by an experienced developer, and there is no evidence that anyone created a signature for files marked “secret” during the Equation investigation.

The company determined that an analyst did create a signature for files with names that included the string “secret,” but it was for a piece of malware associated with the TeamSpy espionage campaign. The signature included a path specific for that malware to avoid false positives.

Another possible scenario is related to the fact that the device of the NSA contractor got infected with malware after the Kaspersky antivirus was disabled. The security product was temporarily disabled when the user attempted to install a pirated copy of Microsoft Office using a known activation tool.

After the antivirus was re-enabled, Kaspersky detected 121 threats on the system. The malware associated with the Office activation tool was Smoke Bot (aka Smoke Loader), which had been sold on Russian underground forums since 2011. At the time of the incident, the malware communicated with servers apparently set up by an individual located in China.

Kaspersky says it’s also possible that the contractor’s computer may have been infected with stealthy malware from a sophisticated threat actor that was not detected at the time.

Several recent media reports focused on Kaspersky’s alleged connection to the Kremlin, which has led to many U.S. officials raising concerns regarding the use of company’s products. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ordered all government agencies to identify and remove the firm’s products, despite the apparent lack of evidence supporting the claims.

In an effort to clear its name, Kaspersky announced the launch of a new transparency initiative that involves giving partners access to source code and paying significantly larger bug bounties for vulnerabilities found in the firm’s products.

Related: Kaspersky in Focus as US-Russia Cyber-Tensions Rise

Related: Kaspersky Chief Agrees to Testify Before Congress

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Eduard Kovacs is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.