US security secrets stolen in Russian NSA hack: reports

NSA data

Russian state-sponsored hackers stole highly classified US cyber security information from the NSA in 2015, it has been claimed.

According reports from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, the breach occurred when a person working in the US spy agency's "elite hacking unit" Tailored Access Operations (TAO) loaded the information onto their home computer.

TAO is the division of the NSA that "develops tools to penetrate computers overseas to gather foreign intelligence", according to the Washington Post's sources. In particular, the information taken by the person involved included hacking tools that were being developed to replace those considered compromised in the Snowden leaks.

It's currently unclear if the individual was an independent contractor, as claimed by the WSJ, or an employee, as claimed by the Washington Post, but they are unified in their claim that Kaspersky Lab antivirus software installed on the individual's computer was used as the conduit to identify and access the material.

Kaspersky Lab has hit back at the allegations, reiterating it "does not have inappropriate ties to any government, including Russia, and the only conclusion seems to be that Kaspersky Lab is caught in the middle of a geopolitical fight".

The statement also hints at what some independent security researchers had speculated that its software detected the programmes brought home by the individual and classified them as threats, uploading their signatures and other information to its database of threats.

The Washington Post claims the incident, which resulted in the person being removed from their post in November 2015, is still under investigation.

This is the latest in a series of embarrassing breaches for the NSA. While the leaks from Edward Snowden in May 2013 may be the most famous, another contractor Harold Martin was arrested last year in relation to a separate 2013 breach. Then, in 2016, hacking group Shadow Brokers stole a vast cache of hacking tools, once again linked to TAO, from the NSA and leaked them to the public.

These latest reports haven't been confirmed by the NSA, however, with the agency telling Reuters: "[We] never to comment on our affiliates or personnel issues."

Jane McCallion
Managing Editor

Jane McCallion is ITPro's Managing Editor, specializing in data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Managing Editor, she held the role of Deputy Editor and, prior to that, Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialize in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.

Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.