A cyberespionage group with a toolset similar to ones used by U.S. intelligence agencies has infiltrated key institutions in countries including Iran and Russia, utilizing a startlingly advanced form of malware that is impossible to remove once it’s infected your PC.
Kaspersky Lab released a report Monday that said the tools were created by the “Equation” group, which it stopped short of linking to the U.S. National Security Agency.
The tools, exploits and malware used by the group—named after its penchant for encryption—have strong similarities with NSA techniques described in top-secret documents leaked in 2013.
Countries hit the most by Equation include Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and China. Targets in those countries included the military, telecommunications, embassies, government, research institutions and Islamic scholars, Kaspersky said.
Kaspersky’s most striking finding is Equation’s ability to infect the firmware of a hard drive, or the low-level code that acts as an interface between hardware and software.
The malware reprograms the hard drive’s firmware, creating hidden sectors on the drive that can only be accessed through a secret API (application programming interface). Once installed, the malware is impossible to remove: disk formatting and reinstalling the OS doesn’t affect it, and the hidden storage sector remains.
“Theoretically, we were aware of this possibility, but as far as I know this is the only case ever that we have seen of an attacker having such an incredibly advanced capability,” said Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab’s global research and analysis team, in a phone interview Monday.