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How to Buy Cyber Weapons From Cyber Arms Dealers

An American security firm found that a seemingly disparate group of cyberattacks came from the same source. By Leo Mirani

When the US Air Force designated six “cyber tools” as “weapons” in April this year, Quartz asked, “What the heck is a cyber-weapon, anyway?” The answer, we found, was vague: Any computer program meant to inflict damage could qualify. These could be developed by military, government, commercial entities or lone actors.

new report (pdf) from FireEye, an American computer security firm, suggests that they can also, to extend the “cyber-weapon” metaphor, come from “cyber arms dealers.” The report found that 11 seemingly disparate attacks on a wide variety of government and commercial targets may have originated from a single source. They shared the same tools, the same elements of code, the same digital certificates, and identical timestamps, indicating that even if the actors were different, they acquired their tools—or weapons—from the same place. 

The attacks, which together cover several years, were all “advanced persistent threats,” which are more or less what they sounds like. FireEye was able to tie in all the attacks to a single campaign, nicknamed “Sunshop,” which among other things targeted the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Korean military think tanks, and an Uyghur discussion forum. All the attacks seemed to originate from China, the report found.

Paint-by-numbers attacks

It seems a minor discovery—after all, somebody has to build the tools with which to compromise networks. But the implications are enormous. The supplier provides attackers with a “builder tool” that allows them to easily make the weapons they need without advanced coding skills. Indeed, the builder comes as a graphical user interface, which is to programming what Windows was to DOS. Attackers would still need a degree of technical sophistication to know how to use the tools. But just as it is easier to learn how to use a computer program to write your own, it is easier to configure a pre-existing tool than to start from scratch.

FireEye concludes that it is unlikely that the builder of the tools and all 11 attack groups were the same. Slightly more likely is that the groups informally collaborated between themselves. But the most likely scenario, the report says, is of the existence of a central developer, probably military, that supplies tools to various campaigns.