How Israel Caught Russian Hackers Scouring the World for U.S. Secrets
Like most security software, Kaspersky Lab’s products require access to everything stored on a computer in order to scour it for viruses or other dangers. Its popular antivirus software scans for signatures of malicious software, or malware, then removes or neuters it before sending a report back to Kaspersky. That procedure, routine for such software, provided a perfect tool for Russian intelligence to exploit to survey the contents of computers and retrieve whatever they found of interest.
The National Security Agency and the White House declined to comment for this article. The Israeli Embassy declined to comment, and the Russian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Russian hackers had stolen classified N.S.A. materials from a contractor using the Kaspersky software on his home computer. But the role of Israeli intelligence in uncovering that breach and the Russian hackers’ use of Kaspersky software in the broader search for American secrets have not previously been disclosed.
Kaspersky Lab denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, the Russian hacking. “Kaspersky Lab has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts,” the company said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. Kaspersky Lab also said it “respectfully requests any relevant, verifiable information that would enable the company to begin an investigation at the earliest opportunity.”
The Kaspersky-related breach is only the latest bad news for the security of American intelligence secrets. It does not appear to be related to a devastating leak of N.S.A. hacking tools last year to a group, still unidentified, calling itself the Shadow Brokers, which has placed many of them online. Nor is it evidently connected to a parallel leak of hacking data from the C.I.A. to WikiLeaks, which has posted classified C.I.A. documents regularly under the name Vault7.
For years, there has been speculation that Kaspersky’s popular antivirus software might provide a back door for Russian intelligence. More than 60 percent, or $374 million, of the company’s $633 million in annual sales come from customers in the United States and Western Europe. Among them have been nearly two dozen American government agencies — including the State Department, the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Justice Department, Treasury Department and the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The N.S.A. bans its analysts from using Kaspersky antivirus at the agency, in large part because the agency has exploited antivirus software for its own foreign hacking operations and knows the same technique is used by its adversaries.