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“Chinese spies” obtained NSA cyber weapons a year before Shadow Brokers leak

Chinese spies obtained NSA cyber weapons more than a year before they were leaked by the Shadow Brokers group in a high profile hack, it has been alleged.

Researchers at Symantec claimed that the Buckeye group, which is believed to be comprised of Chinese intelligence agents, used the weapons to launch attacks on targets in Europe and Asia at least 12 months before they came into the public domain.

In a blog post published on Tuesday (7 May), Symantec’s investigation team noted that variants of the tools used by Buckeye “appear to be different from those released by Shadow Brokers, potentially indicating that they didn’t originate from that leak”.

Instead, Symantec’s researchers believe the tools could have been analysed and repurposed if they were used by the NSA to launch attacks on Chinese targets, the New York Times reported.

Organisations in Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, Belgium and Luxembourg are among those to have been targeted by Buckeye using the NSA’s stolen weapons, according to Symantec.

In November 2017, three alleged members of the Buckeye group were indicted in the United States for hacking three companies for “commercial advantage”. They were accused by the US Department of Justice of computer hacking, theft of trade secrets, conspiracy and identity theft in a campaign against organisations in the financial, engineering and technology industries. Buckeye had gone quiet in the months before the indictments were issued.

“While Buckeye appeared to cease operations in mid-2017, the Equation Group tools it used continued to be used in attacks until late 2018,” said Symantec’s researchers. “It is unknown who continued to use the tools. They may have been passed to another group or Buckeye may have continued operating longer than supposed.”

The authors added: “All zero-day exploits known, or suspected, to have been used by this group are for vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer and Flash.”