Forget that 400-pound hacker sitting on his bed somewhere. Security researchers have discovered yet another link between the Russian military and the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC): this time, in an Android app used by Ukraine's military.
Security firm Crowdstrike, which previously had identified a Russian nation-state cyber espionage unit as the perpetrator behind the DNC data breach and leak of emails and other information in the run-up to the US presidential election, recently found the so-called Fancy Bear hacking team's signature spying malware embedded in an Android app originally created by a Ukrainian artillery officer to help calibrate its field artillery operation in the battle against Russian forces.
The Android version of the so-called X-Agent backdoor malware is able to track the location of Ukrainian artillery forces, and can hijack communications from the mobile devices running the malware. Crowdstrike found that X-Agent from late 2014 through 2016 had been surreptitiously injected into the legitimate app used by Ukrainian military to streamline the previously manual process of configuring their older Soviet-era D-30 Howitzer weapon systems, reducing the time to set a target from minutes to under 15 seconds. The app was available via various online forums and is used by more than 9,000 Ukrainian artillery soldiers.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and CTO of Crowdstrike, says the discovery provides "more conclusive" evidence of a connection between Fancy Bear and the GRU, Russia's military intelligence arm. "And it shows fascinating ways that Russia is using cyber to achieve an affect on the battlefield in Ukraine," he says.
A Windows version of X-Agent was used in the DNC hack, allowing the attackers to remotely control the organization's servers and to steal documents and data, such as the internal emails that were later leaked online. Crowdstrike also has seen iOS versions of the malware, all of which have been only used by Fancy Bear.
"The source code is not publicly available, and we've never seen it before in any public or private" forum, Alperovitch says, which led Crowdstrike to conclude X-Agent is the handiwork of Fancy Bear.
"We have high confidence that it's evident that whoever did the DNC hack is very closely and operationally linked to the Russian military, and most likely, the GRU," he says.
Crowdstrike's new report comes amid a dispute between the incoming administration and the CIA and FBI, which have concluded that Russia was behind the DNC and other hacks and leaks in an effort to influence the outcome of the US presidential election. President-Elect Donald Trump has repeatedly dismissed reports from the US intelligence and cybersecurity communities that Russia was behind the DNC hacks, and maintaining that it could be anyone behind the breaches, including "somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds."
Alperovitch says with the same group of hackers targeting the Ukraine artillery and the DNC, the source is obvious: "One would have to ask the question, who would have an interest in that? It inevitably comes back to the Russian government," he says.
The Cyber Battlefield
The hijacked Android app basically lets Ukrainian artillery soldiers automate the process of determining settings for the older Howitzer weaponry, such as wind speed and elevation, in order to more accurately and rapidly operate them. "It was a pen-and-paper process that took minutes [to set up] before you could fire," Alperovitch says. The app lets them plug in the coordinates, and it calculates the settings automatically.
"Russia backdoored the app with X-Agent, giving them the location of anyone using the app" and engage them militarily, he says.
According to Crowdstrike's report, publicly sourced reports show that Ukrainian artillery forces have suffered some major losses in the conflict with Russia. "Open source reporting indicates that Ukrainian artillery forces have lost over 50% of their weapons in the 2 years of conflict and over 80% of D-30 howitzers, the highest percentage of loss of any other artillery pieces in Ukraine's arsenal," the report said.
"It's interesting that cyber is now migrating this way to the battlefield," Alperovitch says, and it's a "sign of more to come."