Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, under scrutiny for allegedly helping Russian agents steal classified US government data, today conceded its software had collected a file containing source code for a classified NSA hacking tool from a home computer in September 2014.
But the company then deleted the file on the instructions of CEO Eugene Kaspersky and did not share it with anyone else, the security vendor said in a report Wednesday outlining the initial findings of an internal investigation.
According to the security vendor, the file was automatically uploaded to its AV network for analysis from the home computer of an NSA contractor who was running Kaspersky's software. The 7zip archive file contained what appeared to be new, unknown, and debug variants of a hacking tool used by the Equation Group, a hacking team of the NSA.
The home computer on which the NSA file was hosted had a pirated - and malware-infected - version of Microsoft Office running on it, and Kaspersky Lab's AV software apparently detected the NSA file as potentially malicious as well, automatically submitting it to the vendor for analysis. Such automatic submissions are common to all AV tools when they encounter new or previously unknown malware. In this case, Kaspersky's analysis showed the archive to contain malware and source code for Equation APT malware.
"The reason we deleted the files is because first of all, we don't need the source code to improve our protection technologies and secondly, because of concerns regarding the handling of classified materials," a Kaspersky Lab spokesperson said. This concern was later turned into a rule that requires Kaspersky analysts to delete any potentially classified materials that the company's software accidentally collects, she added.
It's too soon to say whether Kaspersky Lab's latest explanation will tamp down or inflame concerns raised by recent reports that Russian agents have used the company's software to steal US secrets.
The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets have quoted unnamed sources as informing them about Russia-sponsored actors using Kaspersky Lab's antivirus technology to search for and steal classified US data from computers running Kaspersky's software. The reports have alleged that the company tweaked its AV software so Russian agents can search systems belonging to Kaspersky's customers using keywords such as "classified" and "top secret."
The US government earlier this year banned federal agencies from using the vendor's software after Israeli cyber spies informed it about discovering classified material on Kaspersky's network. The Israeli agents had previously broken into Kaspersky's network and were apparently spying on the security vendor's activities when they discovered the material.
On Wednesday, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), called on the Trump Administration to declassify any information it might have on Kaspersky Lab even as the House prepared to begin hearings on the issue. Meanwhile, in September Best Buy confirmed it would no longer carry Kaspersky's products citing concerns the company's alleged connections to the Russian government.
Kaspersky Lab has vigorously denied the claims and has suggested it is the victim of the current geopolitical climate. Earlier this week, the company announced that it would allow review of its source code by independent third parties. The security vendor's internal investigation, too, is part of an effort to tell its side of the story.
But some experts say Kaspersky Lab's explanation for how it happened to find the NSA material and what it did after, while plausible, raises more questions.
From the security vendor's report, the NSA file was running on a machine with a virus created by key generator (keygen) for the pirated software, says Simon Gibson, security architect at Gigamon and former Bloomberg CISO. "This keygen software triggered a scan and subsequently the debug or test versions of new Equation Group software being developed were found and uploaded to Kaspersky for analysis," he notes. While that is plausible, it suggests a level of sloppiness on the NSA contractor's part that is surprising, Gibson says.
"People are lazy and make mistakes like downloading a Windows keygen rather than submitting the paperwork to get a paid-for license from their employer," he says. But "most hackers know how hacking works and have a natural sense of self-preservation which makes this level of sloppiness hard to believe."
Wesley McGrew, director of cyber operations at Horne Cyber Solutions, says his concern is with Kaspersky Lab's claim that it deleted the NSA file.
"It's difficult to imagine a scenario where an antivirus company, with an interest in analyzing new malicious software samples and developing signatures for detection, would pass up the opportunity to analyze a collection of source code and debug samples for a malware family," he says.
Kaspersky Lab has analyzed and published research on other Equation Group malware samples, and has claimed to be neutral in the pursuit of nation-state malware samples, he says. "At the time the decision was made to delete, they had already collected the data and associated it with a group they're interested in. Why would their take on it being nation-state intelligence-affiliated push them to delete?"
But John Pescatore, a former NSA analyst and director of emerging security threats at the SANS Institute, says there's little Kaspersky Lab can do at this point beyond what it already has to prove it is not complicit with the Russian government.
"They have provided their source code for inspection," he says. "There's not much further they can go."
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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio