Cyberespionage code has been stealing secrets for at least five years

Russia's Kaspersky Lab, a top international security firm, has uncovered a stunningly sophisticated piece of malware that's been infiltrating defense machines with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other Western military groups over the last half decade.

I. Red October Runs Wild, Evades Deletion

Kaspersky researchers write, "During the past five years, a high-level cyber-espionage campaign has successfully infiltrated computer networks at diplomatic, governmental and scientific research organizations, gathering data and intelligence from mobile devices, computer systems and network equipment."

Much attention has been devoted of late to cyber-espionage efforts allegedly perpetrated by the U.S. and Israel. The Flame and Stuxnet campaigns against Iran captivated readers and infuriated supporters of the Islamist republic of Iran.

But with this new malware, which researchers have dubbed "Red October", the tables are turned U.S. and its allies are the targets.

To give one example of the sophistication of the multi-module attack package, if the user detects Red October and deletes it, a secondary hidden package can detect the deletion and carry out a protocol to reinstall the malware. The so-called "Resurrection Module" masquerades as plug-ins to Adobe Systems Inc.'s (ADBE) PDF Reader or Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Office suite and is inactive until the malware is deleted.
© Unknown
Red October can resurrect itself via a malicious Office plug-in.

The malware has pieces that spread onto USB drives, allowing remote command servers to access deleted files. The malware can spread to a variety of mobile devices including Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iPhone, Nokia Oyj.'s (HEX:NOK1V) Symbian OS, and Microsoft's Windows Phone/Windows Mobile (Android was not mentioned). The malware can even infect routers and switches, stealing their configuration information.

The packages aboard the core malware are designed to defeat a broad range of cryptography, including specialized government protocols such as the Acid Cryptofiler, a series of packages commonly used by European Union governments.

II. Who's Piloting Red October?

The malware features a grab bag of features, mostly from Eastern European, Russian, and Chinese sources. Spear-phishing emails, designed to infect high-profile targets, copy the attack methodology and code of campaigns that China allegedly used against Tibetan activists. Other attack modules borrow heavily from malware allegedly traced to freelance hackers in the employ of the Chinese government. And the vulnerability discovery code, which identifies how best to attack the local machine closely matches that of Conficker, a piece of malware believed to have been developed by hackers in Ukraine.

But there's also a strong Russian influence in malware (hence the name Kaspersky gave it). The researchers comment:

Based on the registration data of C2 servers and the numerous artifacts left in executables of the malware, there is strong technical evidence to indicate the attackers have Russian-speaking origins.

In other words, there's Russian words nestled in the code. When the malware gains access to the system, it orders words to the command prompt be rendered in Cyrillic fonts. Cyrillic is the alphabet used by the Russian language and various other related languages from the Balkans and Northern Eurasia.

But are those true clues or just red herrings? It's hard to say. It's widely held that China and Iran -- who happen to be close trade partners and allies -- are the two most aggressive and sophisticated cyber-aggressors when it comes to attacking the U.S. and its allies. But often China is believed to rely on third parties -- e.g. hackers in Eastern Europe or Russia -- to do its "dirty work".
© Akihabara
Red October is the first known malware to salvage deleted files on USB sticks.

H.D. Moore, chief security officer of security firm Rapid7 and creator of the popular security testing software Metasploit, said in an interview with NBC News that he was "surprised it got as far as it did" given it's proclivity for stealing not just a handful of files, but all sorts of settings and documents from the target machine.

He adds that the recovery software to steal deleted files from USB disks also is a new twist and shows substantial creativity/sophistication. He comments, "We hadn't seen that before in malware. The threat is that USB drives are often shared between people, especially at conferences. Even if you take precautions to delete files and you trust the person you are sharing this with, this malware would be able to automatically recover deleted files and siphon them off without either party being aware."

He argues that Flame is more advanced, but that the sophisticated Red October can still do plenty of "scary things".

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), a subagency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tasked with cyberdefense, is currently investigating the newly discovered malware and assessing whether it gained access to any important files during its silent rampage.