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A sophisticated piece of spyware has been quietly infecting hundreds of government computers across Europe and the United States in one of the most complex cyber espionage programs uncovered to date.
Several security researchers and Western intelligence officers say they believe the malware, widely known as Turla, is the work of the Russian government and linked to the same software used to launch a massive breach on the U.S. military uncovered in 2008. Those assessments were based on analysis of tactics employed by hackers, along with technical indicators and the victims they targeted.
"It is sophisticated malware that's linked to other Russian exploits, uses encryption and targets western governments. It has Russian paw prints all over it," said Jim Lewis, a former U.S. foreign service officer, now senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
However, security experts caution that while the case for saying Turla looks Russian may be strong, it is impossible to confirm those suspicions unless Moscow claims responsibility. Developers often use techniques to cloud their identity.
Public talk of the threat surfaced this week after a little known German anti-virus firm, G Data, published a report on the virus, which it called Uroburos. The name is from a string of text in the code that may be a reference to a Greek symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail.
Experts in state-sponsored cyber attacks say that Russian government-backed hackers are known for being highly disciplined, adept at hiding their tracks, extremely effective at maintaining control of infected networks and more selective in choosing targets than their Chinese counterparts.
"They know that most people don't have either the technical knowledge or the fortitude to win a battle with them. When they recognize that someone is onto them, they just go dormant," said one security expert who has helped victims of state-sponsored hacking operations.