[…] The software engineers behind these systems are employees of NTC Vulkan. On the surface, it looks like a run-of-the-mill cybersecurity consultancy. However, a leak of secret files from the company has exposed its work bolstering Vladimir Putin’s cyberwarfare capabilities.
Thousands of pages of secret documents reveal how Vulkan’s engineers have worked for Russian military and intelligence agencies to support hacking operations, train operatives before attacks on national infrastructure, spread disinformation and control sections of the internet.
The company’s work is linked to the federal security service or FSB, the domestic spy agency; the operational and intelligence divisions of the armed forces, known as the GOU and GRU; and the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence organisation.
One document links a Vulkan cyber-attack tool with the notorious hacking group Sandworm, which the US government said twice caused blackouts in Ukraine, disrupted the Olympics in South Korea and launched NotPetya, the most economically destructive malware in history. Codenamed Scan-V, it scours the internet for vulnerabilities, which are then stored for use in future cyber-attacks.
Another system, known as Amezit, amounts to a blueprint for surveilling and controlling the internet in regions under Russia’s command, and also enables disinformation via fake social media profiles. A third Vulkan-built system – Crystal-2V – is a training program for cyber-operatives in the methods required to bring down rail, air and sea infrastructure. A file explaining the software states: “The level of secrecy of processed and stored information in the product is ‘Top Secret’.”
The Vulkan files, which date from 2016 to 2021, were leaked by an anonymous whistleblower angered by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Such leaks from Moscow are extremely rare. Days after the invasion in February last year, the source approached the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and said the GRU and FSB “hide behind” Vulkan.
Five western intelligence agencies confirmed the Vulkan files appear to be authentic. The company and the Kremlin did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The leak contains emails, internal documents, project plans, budgets and contracts. They offer insight into the Kremlin’s sweeping efforts in the cyber-realm, at a time when it is pursuing a brutal war against Ukraine. It is not known whether the tools built by Vulkan have been used for real-world attacks, in Ukraine or elsewhere.
Some documents in the leak contain what appear to be illustrative examples of potential targets. One contains a map showing dots across the US. Another contains the details of a nuclear power station in Switzerland.
One document shows engineers recommending Russia add to its own capabilities by using hacking tools stolen in 2016 from the US National Security Agency and posted online.
John Hultquist, the vice-president of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which reviewed selections of the material at the request of the consortium, said: “These documents suggest that Russia sees attacks on civilian critical infrastructure and social media manipulation as one and the same mission, which is essentially an attack on the enemy’s will to fight.”
One of Vulkan’s most far-reaching projects was carried out with the blessing of the Kremlin’s most infamous unit of cyberwarriors, known as Sandworm. According to US prosecutors and western governments, over the past decade Sandworm has been responsible for hacking operations on an astonishing scale. It has carried out numerous malign acts: political manipulation, cyber-sabotage, election interference, dumping of emails and leaking.
Sandworm disabled Ukraine’s power grid in 2015. The following year it took part in Russia’s brazen operation to derail the US presidential election. Two of its operatives were indicted for distributing emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s Democrats using a fake persona, Guccifer 2.0. Then in 2017 Sandworm purloined further data in an attempt to influence the outcome of the French presidential vote, the US says.
That same year the unit unleashed the most consequential cyber-attack in history. Operatives used a bespoke piece of malware called NotPetya. Beginning in Ukraine, NotPetya rapidly spread across the globe. It knocked offline shipping firms, hospitals, postal systems and pharmaceutical manufacturers – a digital onslaught that spilled over from the virtual into the physical world.
Hacking groups such as Sandworm penetrate computer systems by first looking for weak spots. Scan-V supports that process, conducting automated reconnaissance of potential targets around the world in a hunt for potentially vulnerable servers and network devices. The intelligence is then stored in a data repository, giving hackers an automated means of identifying targets.
One part of Amezit is domestic-facing, allowing operatives to hijack and take control of the internet if unrest breaks out in a Russian region, or the country gains a stronghold over territory in a rival nation state, such as Ukraine. Internet traffic deemed to be politically harmful can be removed before it has a chance to spread.
A 387-page internal document explains how Amezit works. The military needs physical access to hardware, such as mobile phone towers, and to wireless communications. Once they control transmission, traffic can be intercepted. Military spies can identify people browsing the web, see what they are accessing online, and track information that users are sharing.
the firm developed a bulk collection program for the FSB called Fraction. It combs sites such as Facebook or Odnoklassniki – the Russian equivalent – looking for key words. The aim is to identify potential opposition figures from open source data.
This Amezit sub-system allows the Russian military to carry out large-scale covert disinformation operations on social media and across the internet, through the creation of accounts that resemble real people online, or avatars. The avatars have names and stolen personal photos, which are then cultivated over months to curate a realistic digital footprint.
The leak contains screenshots of fake Twitter accounts and hashtags used by the Russian military from 2014 until earlier this year. They spread disinformation, including a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton and a denial that Russia’s bombing of Syria killed civilians. Following the invasion of Ukraine, one Vulkan-linked fake Twitter account posted: “Excellent leader #Putin”.
Another Vulkan-developed project linked to Amezit is far more threatening. Codenamed Crystal-2V, it is a training platform for Russian cyber-operatives. Capable of allowing simultaneous use by up to 30 trainees, it appears to simulate attacks against a range of essential national infrastructure targets: railway lines, electricity stations, airports, waterways, ports and industrial control systems.
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