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Russian cybersecurity firm reports U.S. embedded spyware

A Russian Cybersecurity firm reported on Monday that the United States permanently embedded sabotage tools and software in targeted networks globally. According to the report, an organization called “The Equation Group” imbedded spyware in computers in Iran, Russia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is believed the group is a reference to the US National Security Agency and US Cyber Command.

Kaspersky Lab reported that a computer worm, known as Stuxnet, used to disable centrifuges in Iran is similar to the spyware used in the most recent implants. Stuxnet was later determined to be part of a program run jointly by the United States and Israel, known as “Olympic Games.” It was later learned that the program had similar qualities as code used to infect networks in Pakistan, Russia and Iran.

According to Kaspersky, the spyware is beyond the reach of current antivirus products once it is embedded in a system as it digs deep into the systems, even infecting firmware. This makes it almost impossible to eliminate. Because the computer systems where the programs have been discovered are in countries with nuclear programs the U.S. wants to monitor, Kapersky said that it may also allow the American government to gather encryption keys, giving them the ability to unscramble content on the network.

In addition to allowing the U.S. government to monitor and gather information related to the nuclear programs of other countries, Stuxnet may also run on computers that are not connected to the Internet, which is what happened in Iran.

Kaspersky reported that the Equation Group, active for more than two decades, created programs that far surpassed any other previously seen by spyware experts, using complex techniques unseen in past spyware. Because Stuxnet is able to actually attack the firmware of a system, the program is extremely difficult to eliminate. In most cases, a cyberattack requires clearing a network’s operating system and reinstalling software. However, when the firmware of a network is infected, a computer can become virtually useless.

Cyber-security experts have warned for many years that security software must be developed that not only protects the operating system, but to also protect the actual hardware, a term known as “race to the bare metal.” Programs that infect firmware allow an attacker to reinfect machines even after the hard drive has been erased.

According to the report, the Equation Group began aggressively increasing their ability to place spyware throughout the globe in 2008, the year President Barack Obama was elected and that their digital tool capabilities had grown exponentially since that time, despite the fact that they had been in operation at least since 2001. The US Government has not taken responsibility for the spyware although President Obama has called the potential for cyberweapons a growing threat throughout the world.

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