Russian hackers exploit Windows to spy on West

28 years of Windows in :75
28 years of Windows in :75

Russian hackers have taken advantage of a bug in Microsoft Windows to spy on the Ukrainian government and a scholar living in the United States.

That's according to iSight Partners, a cybersecurity intelligence firm that contracts with governments. In a report Tuesday, the firm said it discovered the never-before-seen attack, which has been used by hackers in recent months.

The bug the hackers used exists in all modern versions of the Windows operating system: Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1. It's also present in 2008 and 2012 versions of Windows used by company servers. That means the vast majority of the world's computers -- nearly 68%, according to NetMarketShare -- are vulnerable to this unique type of attack.

Microsoft (MSFT), which first learned of the bug from iSight Partners, released a patch at 1 p.m. EST.

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The Russian government did not respond to requests for comment. The Ukrainian government said it could not provide an immediate statement.

ISight, a Dallas-based intelligence firm, first spotted hackers using this attack in mid-August, sending phishing emails to Ukrainian government officials. The emails included a malware-laced PowerPoint attachment that claimed to be a terrorist watch list of pro-Russian separatists.

The malware had been tailored to spy on computers by quietly stealing emails and documents.

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The complexity and uniqueness of the attack led iSight to believe Russian hackers with government ties were responsible. Zero-day attacks (identified that way because they are brand new) are costly to develop, making them "typically the domain of cyber espionage teams and nation-states," said Stephen Ward, an executive at iSight Partners.

"The types of targets they were after relate to military, foreign policy and critical elements of the Russian GDP," Ward said.

That included a university researcher in the American Midwest who specializes in Russian culture, Ward said.

Investigators at iSight Partners were able to partially trace the attack, because hackers had made a mistake: A computer server sending messages to victimized computers was left openly visible on the Internet. On it were documents written in Russian language -- including instructions on how to use the malware.

The investigators believe the hackers are also responsible for spying attacks on a European government agency, a French telecom company and a Polish energy firm.

ISight dubbed the hacking group the "SandWorm Team," because the code it used was littered with references to the science fiction classic Dune. Sandworms are massive monsters that play a primary role in the novel.

This is only the latest cyberattack blamed on hackers in Russia. In the last year alone, Russia has been accused of attacking U.S. oil and gas companies, as well as placing a digital bomb in the Nasdaq and hacking JPMorgan and several other financial institutions.

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