Kaspersky uncovers hard drive hackers with Stuxnet links

Hacker hands

A hacking group responsible for a cyber rampage thought to have lasted up to 20 years has been uncovered by Russian security researchers.

According to Kaspersky researchers, The Equation Group has been infecting users with malware in a range of verticals, including the public sector, telecoms, energy, transportation and financial industries, since at least 2001,

This is when the command and control server The Equation Group uses was first registered, but others employed by the troop date back to 1996, suggesting the perpetrators may have been going a lot longer.

During its reign, the anti-virus firm's researchers fear up to tens of thousands of computers may have been infected by the group using a number of codenamed tools, including Equationlaser, Equationdrug, Doublefantasy, Triplefantasy, Fanny and Grayfish.

They've also described the group as one of the world's most sophisticated perpetrators of cyber attacks.

"Perhaps the most powerful tool in the Equation Group's arsenal is a mysterious module... [that] allows them to reprogram the hard drive firmware of over a dozen different hard drive brands, including Seagate, Western Digital, Toshiba, Maxtor and IBM," the researchers stated in a blog post.

"This is an astonishing technical accomplishment and is testament to the group's abilities."

This allows an invisible pool of storage to be created within the infected hard drive, that would persist in the wake of a drive being reformatted and the operating system reinstalled.

"The Equation group's HDD firmware reprogramming module is extremely rare. During our research we've only identified a few victims who were targeted by this module," the researchers said in an FAQ document about The Equation Group.

"This indicates that it is probably only kept for the most valuable victims or for some very unusual circumstances."

The Kaspersky blog post goes on to share details of one of the group's most notable attacks, dubbed Fanny Worm, which was used to map out air-gapped networks in the Middle East and Asia in 2008, and was spread via USB sticks.

It featured two zero-day exploits which were latest observed during the Stuxnet wave of attacks during 2009-10.

"It's important to point out that these two exploits were used in Fanny before they were integrated into Stuxnet, indicating that the equation group had access to these zero-days before the Stuxnet group," the blog post continued.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.