Shining light on the shadowy, "superhuman" state-level Equation Group hackers

For more than decade, a shadowy, heavily resourced, sophisticated hacker group that Kaspersky Labs calls the Equation Group has committed a string of daring, cutting-edge information attacks, likely at the behest of the NSA.

Kaspersky calls them "the most sophisticated computer attack group" in the world, and in a new report [PDF], they document many of the group's "superhuman" feats. Kaspersky does not quite say that Equation work for the NSA, but they have produced a wealth of evidence linking the group to the US spy agency, including similarities between Equation's arsenal and the weapons in the NSA's Tailored Access Operations manual.

A long list of almost superhuman technical feats illustrate Equation Group's extraordinary skill, painstaking work, and unlimited resources. They include:

  • * The use of virtual file systems, a feature also found in the highly sophisticated Regin malware. Recently published documents provided by Ed Snowden indicate that the NSA used Regin to infect the partly state-owned Belgian firm Belgacom.
  • * The stashing of malicious files in multiple branches of an infected computer's registry. By encrypting all malicious files and storing them in multiple branches of a computer's Windows registry, the infection was impossible to detect using antivirus software.
  • * Redirects that sent iPhone users to unique exploit Web pages. In addition, infected machines reporting to Equation Group command servers identified themselves as Macs, an indication that the group successfully compromised both iOS and OS X devices.
  • * The use of more than 300 Internet domains and 100 servers to host a sprawling command and control infrastructure.
  • * USB stick-based reconnaissance malware to map air-gapped networks, which are so sensitive that they aren't connected to the Internet. Both Stuxnet and the related Flame malware platform also had the ability to bridge airgaps.
  • * An unusual if not truly novel way of bypassing code-signing restrictions in modern versions of Windows, which require that all third-party software interfacing with the operating system kernel be digitally signed by a recognized certificate authority. To circumvent this restriction, Equation Group malware exploited a known vulnerability in an already signed driver for CloneCD to achieve kernel-level code execution.

How “omnipotent” hackers tied to NSA hid for 14 years—and were found at last [Dan Goodin]