The N.S.A.’s tools were most likely more useful than FireEye’s since the U.S. government builds purpose-made digital weapons. FireEye’s Red Team tools are essentially built from malware that the company has seen used in a wide range of attacks.
Still, the advantage of using stolen weapons is that nation-states can hide their own tracks when they launch attacks.
“Hackers could leverage FireEye’s tools to hack risky, high-profile targets with plausible deniability,” said Patrick Wardle, a former N.S.A. hacker who is now a principal security researcher at Jamf, a software company. “In risky environments, you don’t want to burn your best tools, so this gives advanced adversaries a way to use someone else’s tools without burning their best capabilities.”
A Chinese state-sponsored hacking group was previously caught using the N.S.A.’s hacking tools in attacks around the world, ostensibly after discovering the N.S.A.’s tools on its own systems. “It’s like a no-brainer,” said Mr. Wardle.
The breach is likely to be a black eye for FireEye. Its investigators worked with Sony after the devastating 2014 attack that the firm later attributed to North Korea. It was FireEye that was called in after the State Department and other American government agencies were breached by Russian hackers in 2015. And its major corporate clients include Equifax, the credit monitoring service that was hacked three years ago, affecting nearly half of the American population.
In the FireEye attack, the hackers went to extraordinary lengths to avoid being seen. They created several thousand internet protocol addresses — many inside the United States — that had never before been used in attacks. By using those addresses to stage their attack, it allowed the hackers to better conceal their whereabouts.
“This attack is different from the tens of thousands of incidents we have responded to throughout the years,” said Kevin Mandia, FireEye’s chief executive. (He was the founder of Mandiant, a firm that FireEye acquired in 2014.)
But FireEye said it was still investigating exactly how the hackers had breached its most protected systems. Details were thin.
Mr. Mandia, a former Air Force intelligence officer, said the attackers “tailored their world-class capabilities specifically to target and attack FireEye.” He said they appeared to be highly trained in “operational security” and exhibited “discipline and focus,” while moving clandestinely to escape the detection of security tools and forensic examination. Google, Microsoft and other firms that conduct cybersecurity investigations said they had never seen some of these techniques.
FireEye also published key elements of its “Red Team” tools so that others around the world would see attacks coming.
American investigators are trying to determine if the attack has any relationship to another sophisticated operation that the N.S.A. said Russia was behind in a warning issued on Monday. That gets into a type of software, called VM for virtual machines, which is used widely by defense companies and manufacturers. The N.S.A. declined to say what the targets of that attack were. It is unclear whether the Russians used their success in that breach to get into FireEye’s systems.
The attack on FireEye could be a retaliation of sorts. The company’s investigators have repeatedly called out units of the Russian military intelligence — the G.R.U., the S.V.R. and the F.S.B., the successor agency to the Soviet-era K.G.B. — for high-profile hacks on the power grid in Ukraine and on American municipalities. They were also the first to call out the Russian hackers behind an attack that successfully dismantled the industrial safety locks at a Saudi petrochemical plant, the very last step before triggering an explosion.
“The Russians believe in revenge,” said James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Suddenly, FireEye’s customers are vulnerable.”
On Tuesday, Russia’s National Association for International Information Security held a forum with global security experts where Russian officials again claimed that there was no evidence its hackers were responsible for attacks that have resulted in American sanctions and indictments.
Security firms have been a frequent target for nation-states and hackers, in part because their tools maintain a deep level of access to corporate and government clients all over the world. By hacking into those tools and stealing source code, spies and hackers can gain a foothold to victims’ systems.
McAfee, Symantec and Trend Micro were among the list of major security companies whose code a Russian-speaking hacker group claimed to have stolen last year. Kaspersky, the Russian security firm, was hacked by Israeli hackers in 2017. And in 2012, Symantec confirmed that a segment of its antivirus source code was stolen by hackers.
Cited: NY Times