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Latest Kaspersky controversy brings new questions, few answers

Kaspersky Lab’s latest salvo in its ongoing feud with the U.S. government and media offered some answers but raised eve more questions.

The company on Tuesday broke its silence a week after a series of explosive news reports turned up the heat on the Kaspersky controversy. We discussed the reports and the questions surrounding them in this week’s episode of the Risk & Repeat podcast, but I’ll summarize:

  • The New York Times claimed that Israeli intelligence officers hacked into Kaspersky Lab in 2015 and, more importantly, observed Russian hackers using the company’s antivirus software to search for classified U.S. government documents.
  • The Washington Post published a similar report later that day and also claimed Israeli intelligence discovered NSA hacking tools on Kaspersky’s network.
  • The Wall Street Journal also had a similar story the next day on the Kaspersky controversy, with a very important detail that Kaspersky antivirus scans were searching for

These reports resulted in the most serious and detailed allegations yet against Kaspersky; anonymous government officials had accused the company of, among other things, helping state-sponsored Russian hackers by tailoring Kaspersky antivirus scans to hunt for U.S. secrets.

As a result, Kaspersky responded this week with an oddly-worded statement (and a curious URL) that offered some rebuttals to the articles but also raised more questions. Much of the statement focuses on the “English-speaking media,” their use of anonymous sources and the lack of specific details about the secret files that were stolen, among other elements of the news reports.

But there are some important details in the statement that both shed light on the situation and raise further questions on the Kaspersky controversy. Here are a few points that stood out:

  • Kaspersky doesn’t directly confront the allegation that it had, or has, NSA cyberweapons on its servers. But it did provide reasoning for why it would have possession of them: “It sounds like this contractor decided to work on a cyberweapon from home, and our antivirus detected it. What a surprise!”
  • Kaspersky explained how its antivirus scanning works, specifically how Kaspersky Security Network (KSN) identifies malicious and suspicious files and transfers them to Kaspersky’s cloud repository. This is also where Kaspersky throws some shade: “If you like to develop cyberweapons on your home computer, it would be quite logical to turn KSN off — otherwise your malicious software will end up in our antivirus database and all your work will have been in vain.”
  • Ironically, the above point raised more questions about the reported NSA breach. Wouldn’t an NSA contractor know that having hacking tools (a.k.a. malware) on their computer would alert Kaspersky’s antivirus software? Wouldn’t the individual know to turn off KSN or perhaps use Kaspersky’s Private Security Network? It’s entirely possible that a person foolish enough to bring highly classified data home to their personal computer could commit an equally foolish error by fully enabling Kaspersky antivirus software, but it’s difficult to believe.
  • Kaspersky provided an explanation for why it would have NSA hacking tools on its network, but it didn’t offer any insight into how hackers could gain access to KSN data and use it to search for government documents. When Kaspersky was breached in 2015 (by Russian hackers, not Israeli hackers), did they gain access to KSN? Could threat actors somehow intercept transmissions from Kaspersky antivirus software to KSN? The company isn’t saying.
  • Let’s assume Kaspersky did have NSA cyberweapons on its network when the company was breached in 2015 (which, again, the company has not confirmed or denied). This makes sense since Kaspersky was the first to report on the Equation Group in February of 2015. But this raises the possibility that Kaspersky had possession of exploits like EternalBlue, DoublePulsar and others that were exposed by the Shadow Brokers in 2016 – but for whatever reason didn’t disclose them. Based on the Equation Group report, which cited a number of exploit codenames, that there is some overlap between what Kaspersky discovered and what was later released by the Shadow Brokers (FoggyBottom and Grok malware modules, for example, were included in last month’s UNITEDRAKE dump). But other hacking tools and malware samples discovered by Kaspersky were not identified by their codenames and instead were given nicknames by the company. Did Kaspersky have more of the cyberweapons that were later exposed by the Shadow Brokers? The idea that two largely distinct caches of NSA exploits were exposed – with one obtained by Kaspersky, and one stolen by the Shadow Brokers – is tough to wrap my head around. But considering the repeated blunders by the intelligence community and its contractors in recent years, maybe it’s not so far-fetched.
  • The Equation Group is the elephant in the room. Kaspersky’s landmark report on the covert NSA hacking group seems relevant in light of last week’s news, but the company hasn’t referenced it in any capacity. Does Kaspersky think the Equation Group reveal played a part in the U.S. government’s decision to ban its products? Again, the company isn’t saying. Instead, Kaspersky’s statement took some shots at the news media and made vague references to “geopolitics.”
  • Finally, a big question: Why did Israeli intelligence officers hack into Kaspersky’s network in 2015? The articles in question never make that clear, and Kaspersky never directly addresses that information in its statement. Instead, the company cites its report on the breach and the Duqu 2.0 malware used in the attack. Bu this is an important question, and it’s one that Kaspersky has shown no interest in raising. And that is strange, because it’s important part of this mess that has seemingly been overlooked. What was the motive for the attack? Was the attack in some way a response to Kaspersky’s exposure of the Equation Group? Was Israeli intelligence hoping to gain deeper insight into Kaspersky’s technologies to avoid detection? It’s unclear.

More bombshell stories on the Kaspersky controversy are likely to drop in the coming weeks and months. But until the U.S. government officially discloses what it has on the antivirus maker, and until Kaspersky itself comes clean on unanswered questions, we won’t have anything close to a clear picture.

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