Malware intentionally created by the U.S. National Security Agency to infect personal computer hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs) cannot be detected by antivirus programs.
The spyware, which infects a drive's firmware, can also produce a treasure trove of data for any government agency controlling the drives, according to Russian security software maker Kaspersky Lab.
Kaspersky released a report this week saying that it had discovered the spyware on hard drives in personal computers from 30 countries, including the U.S. The company said the malware, known as Fanny, likely predated other NSA spyware, such as Stuxnet, and has likely been in use for nearly two decades.
Kaspersky does not name the NSA in its report. Instead, it refers to those in charge of the spyware program as "the Equation group," noting that the same group was closely linked to Stuxnet.
Stuxnet, which came to light in 2010, was a computer worm developed by the NSA to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.
According to a report by Reuters, a former NSA employee "confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it."
Kaspersky said the latest spyware was discovered on hard drives from more than a dozen major manufacturers, including Seagate, Maxtor (now a subsidiary of Seagate), Western Digital (WD), Toshiba, IBM and even SSD makers such as Micron and Samsung.
"There is no way to understand whether your HDD is infected," Igor Soumenkov, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, said in an email reply to Computerworld. "Once the hard drive gets infected with this malicious payload, it's impossible to scan its firmware."
To put it simply: For most hard drives, there are functions to write into the hardware's firmware area, but there are no functions to read it back.
"It means that we are practically blind, and cannot detect hard drives that have been infected by this malware," Soumenkov said.
The Equation group used a variety of methods to spread its programs, including infecting USB sticks and CDs, as well as the Fanny computer worm.
Fanny was "presumably" compiled in July 2008, Kaspersky's report stated, as it was first observed and blocked by the company in December of that year.
Kaspersky's report stated that it's not known when the Equation group began its ascent into cyberespionage. Some of the earliest malware samples Kaspersky discovered were compiled in 2002, but some of the command and control (C&C) software was registered in August 2001.
"Other C&Cs used by the Equation group appear to have been registered as early as 1996, which could indicate this group has been active for almost two decades," Kaspersky's report stated.
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