Malware code reportedly leaked from the National Security Agency has been linked to a sophisticated cyber-attack framework, known as Regin, which had previously been used to attack political targets in Russia and the Middle East.
In an analysis published on Jan. 27, researchers from security firm Kaspersky Lab highlighted similarities between Regin's code and code from an espionage keylogging tool, known as QWERTY, allegedly leaked from the National Security Agency.
The code for QWERTY was published on Jan. 17 by German news magazine Der Spiegel as part of an article highlighting the digital tools used by the NSA for espionage and surveillance.
A module in the QWERTY package is identical to a module in Regin, according to the analysis by researchers Costin Raiu and Igor Soumenkov. Both code segments—QWERTY's 20123 module and Regin's 50251 module—attempt to use the same hooking function found in Regin, a module known as 50225.
"This is a solid proof that the Qwerty plugin can only operate as part of the Regin platform, leveraging the kernel hooking functions from plugin 50225," the researchers said in the analysis, adding, "Considering the extreme complexity of the Regin platform and little chance that it can be duplicated by somebody without having access to its sourcecodes (sic), we conclude the QWERTY malware developers and the Regin developers are the same or working together."
In November 2013, Symantec, Kaspersky Lab and other security firms released information about a sophisticated cyber-attack campaign known as Regin. Online spies using the espionage platform had infiltrated systems in Russia, Saudi Arabia and other countries since at least 2008, and perhaps as early as 2003, according to the firms.
The multistage operations used the malware platform to compromise computer systems and then steal data from telecommunications firms, government officials, multinational agencies, and financial and research institutions, as well as a few individuals, according to the security firms.
At the time, those responsible for the long-running cyber-operation were unknown. However, based on the Kaspersky Lab analysis, one of the so-called "Five Eyes"—the intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States—was likely behind the attack.
However, the analysis is less about attribution for the cyber-spying campaign and more about showing the sophistication of the framework, Soumenkov told eWEEK in an interview.
"Attribution remains a very difficult problem when it comes to professional attackers such as those behind Regin—we have proof that QWERTY was made for working with Regin," Soumenkov said. "Our research shows more about the scale of [the] Regin platform than about its origin."
The leak of the code to the QWERTY keylogger came from a document accompanying the Der Spiegel article. The authors claimed that the program had been part of an operation known as "Warriorpride," a project on which the NSA and other Five Eyes members had cooperated.
Because Regin modules are stored and run inside encrypted virtual file systems, the code is very hard to find. The QWERTY keylogger could likely only be found by scanning system memory, the researchers said.