Kenya has been listed among the countries in Africa under surveillance by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) through installing spyware in devices from top manufacturers such as Western Digital, Seagate and Toshiba, Samsung, Maxtor, and IBM giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world’s computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives.
That long-sought and closely guarded ability was part of a cluster of spying programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based security software maker that has exposed a series of Western cyberespionage operations.
Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said.
The severity of the of the infection was rated in three categories which included high infection rate, medium infection of the rate and low infection rate where Kenya was in the second category. The highest number of machines infected with at least one of the equation programs were found in Iran, followed by Russia and Pakistan.
According to Reuters The firm declined to publicly name the country behind the spying campaign, but said it was closely linked to Stuxnet, the NSA-led cyberweapon that was used to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facility. The NSA is the agency responsible for gathering electronic intelligence on behalf of the United States.
Kaspersky published the technical details of its research on Monday, which should help infected institutions detect the spying programs, some of which trace back as far as 2001.
The disclosure could further hurt the NSA’s surveillance abilities, already damaged by massive leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations have hurt the United States’ relations with some allies and slowed the sales of U.S. technology products abroad.
The exposure of these new spying tools could lead to greater backlash against Western technology, particularly in countries such as China, which is already drafting regulations that would require most bank technology suppliers to proffer copies of their software code for inspection.
Peter Swire, one of five members of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, said the Kaspersky report showed that it is essential for the country to consider the possible impact on trade and diplomatic relations before deciding to use its knowledge of software flaws for intelligence gathering.
“There can be serious negative effects on other U.S. interests,” Swire said.
According to Kaspersky, the spies made a technological breakthrough by figuring out how to lodge malicious software in the obscure code called firmware that launches every time a computer is turned on.
Disk drive firmware is viewed by spies and cybersecurity experts as the second-most valuable real estate on a PC for a hacker, second only to the BIOS code invoked automatically as a computer boots up.
“The hardware will be able to infect the computer over and over,” lead Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu said in an interview.
Though the leaders of the still-active espionage campaign could have taken control of thousands of PCs, giving them the ability to steal files or eavesdrop on anything they wanted, the spies were selective and only established full remote control over machines belonging to the most desirable foreign targets, according to Raiu. He said Kaspersky found only a few especially high-value computers with the hard-drive infections.
Kaspersky’s reconstructions of the spying programs show that they could work in disk drives sold by more than a dozen companies, comprising essentially the entire market. They include Western Digital Corp, Seagate Technology Plc, Toshiba Corp, IBM, Micron Technology Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.
Concerns about access to source code flared after a series of high-profile cyberattacks on Google Inc and other U.S. companies in 2009 that were blamed on China. Investigators have said they found evidence that the hackers gained access to source code from several big U.S. tech and defense companies.
However, it is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code.