In what security experts say is either a one-of-a-kind breach or an elaborate hoax, an anonymous group has published what it claims are sophisticated software tools belonging to an elite team of hackers tied to the US National Security Agency.
In a recently published blog post, the group calling itself Shadow Brokers claims the leaked set of exploits were obtained after members hacked Equation Group (the post has since been removed from Tumblr). Last year, Kaspersky Lab researchers described Equation Group as one of the world's most advanced hacking groups, with ties to both the Stuxnet and Flame espionage malware platforms. The compressed data accompanying the Shadow Broker post is slightly bigger than 256 megabytes and purports to contain a series of hacking tools dating back to 2010. While it wasn't immediately possible for outsiders to prove the posted data—mostly batch scripts and poorly coded python scripts—belonged to Equation Group, there was little doubt the data have origins with some advanced hacking group.
Not fully fake
"These files are not fully fake for sure," Bencsáth Boldizsár, a researcher with Hungary-based CrySyS who is widely credited with discovering Flame, told Ars in an e-mail. "Most likely they are part of the NSA toolset, judging just by the volume and peeps into the samples. At first glance it is sound that these are important attack related files, and yes, the first guess would be Equation Group."
Security experts have discovered a malware platform that's so advanced in its design and execution that it could probably have been developed only with the active support of a nation state.
The malware—known alternatively as "ProjectSauron" by researchers from Kaspersky Lab and "Remsec" by their counterparts from Symantec—has been active since at least 2011 and has been discovered on 30 or so targets. Its ability to operate undetected for five years is a testament to its creators, who clearly studied other state-sponsored hacking groups in an attempt to replicate their advances and avoid their mistakes. State-sponsored groups have been responsible for malware like the Stuxnet- or National Security Agency-linked Flame, Duqu, and Regin. Much of ProjectSauron resides solely in computer memory and was written in the form of Binary Large Objects, making it hard to detect using antivirus.
Because of the way the software was written, clues left behind by ProjectSauron in so-called software artifacts are unique to each of its targets. That means that clues collected from one infection don't help researchers uncover new infections. Unlike many malware operations that reuse servers, domain names, or IP addresses for command and control channels, the people behind ProjectSauron chose a different one for almost every target.