Link between NSA and Regin cyberespionage malware becomes clearer

Security researchers find a strong connection between Regin and a keylogger used by the Five Eyes intelligence alliance

snowden
Credit: ajehals/Flickr

Keylogging malware that may have been used by the NSA shares signficant portions of code with a component of Regin, a sophisticated platform that has been used to spy on businesses, government institutions and private individuals for years.

The keylogger program, likely part of an attack framework used by the U.S. National Security Agency and its intelligence partners, is dubbed QWERTY and was among the files that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked to journalists. It was released by German news magazine Der Spiegel on Jan. 17 along with a larger collection of secret documents about the malware capabilities of the NSA and the other Five Eyes partners -- the intelligence agencies of the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

"We've obtained a copy of the malicious files published by Der Spiegel and when we analyzed them, they immediately reminded us of Regin," malware researchers from antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab said Tuesday in a blog post. "Looking at the code closely, we conclude that the 'QWERTY' malware is identical in functionality to the Regin 50251 plugin."

Moreover, the Kaspersky researchers found that both QWERTY and the 50251 plug-in depend on a different module of the Regin platform identified as 50225 which handles kernel-mode hooking. This component allows the malware to run in the highest privileged area of the operating system -- the kernel.

This is strong proof that QWERTY can only operate as part of the Regin platform, the Kaspersky researchers said. "Considering the extreme complexity of the Regin platform and little chance that it can be duplicated by somebody without having access to its source code, we conclude the QWERTY malware developers and the Regin developers are the same or working together."

Der Spiegel reported that QWERTY is likely a plug-in of a unified malware framework codenamed WARRIORPRIDE that is used by all Five Eye partners. This is based on references in the code to a dependency called WzowskiLib or CNELib.

In a separate leaked document authored by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, the Canadian counterpart of the NSA, WARRIORPRIDE is described as a flexible computer network exploitation (CNE) platform that's an implementation of the "WZOWSKI" Five Eyes API (application programming interface).

The document also notes that WARRIORPRIDE is known under the code name DAREDEVIL at the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and that the Five Eyes intelligence partners can create and share plug-ins for it.

The newly discovered link between QWERTY and Regin suggests that the cyberespionage malware platform security researchers call Regin is most likely WARRIORPRIDE.

Some experts already suspected this based on other clues. According to Kaspersky Lab, Regin was the malware program that infected the personal computer of Belgian cryptographer Jean-Jacques Quisquater in 2013. That attack was linked to another malware attack against Belgian telecommunications group Belgacom whose customers include the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council.

Der Spiegel reported in September 2013, based on documents leaked by Snowden, that GCHQ was responsible for the attack on Belgacom as part of a secret operation code-named Operation Socialist.

Ronald Prins, co-founder of Fox-IT, a Dutch security company hired to investigate the attack against Belgacom, told The Intercept in November that he was convinced Regin was used by British and American intelligence services. The Intercept also reported, citing unnamed sources, that the malware was used in attacks against the European Parliament.

An NSA spokeswoman said at the time that the agency would not comment on The Intercept's "speculation."

The existence of Regin was first disclosed in November, when both Kaspersky Lab and Symantec published extensive research papers on it. However, antivirus companies knew about the malware for at least a year prior to that and forensic evidence suggests that the threat may have been active as far back as 2006.

Security researchers believe that Regin is comparable in sophistication to Stuxnet, the computer worm reportedly created by the U.S. and Israel that was used to sabotage Iran's nuclear efforts by destroying uranium enrichment centrifuges.

However, unlike Stuxnet, Regin was mostly used for espionage, not sabotage. Symantec found around 100 Regin victims in 10 countries, mostly in Russia and Saudi Arabia, but also in Mexico, Ireland, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Belgium, Austria and Pakistan. The main targets were telecom operators, government organizations, multi-national political bodies, financial institutions, research centers and individuals involved in advanced mathematical and cryptographical research, according to Kaspersky Lab.

No new infections with Regin have been found since mid-2014, said Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky's global research and analysis team, via email Monday.

It's not clear whether the malware platform's authors are working to completely replace it because it has been exposed or are just making significant changes to it.

"We believe it would be very difficult to replace the whole Regin platform with something else," Raiu said. "Therefore, it is more likely it will be modified and improved instead of completely replaced."

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