May 22, 2023

Snake Malware: A Coordinated Effort to Disrupt the Most Sophisticated Cyber Espionage Tool


The recent announcement from the US Justice Department on the disruption of the notorious Russian government cyber espionage malware, Snake, marks a significant milestone in cyberwarfare. The sophisticated malware has been infecting targets in at least 50 countries for over 20 years, collecting sensitive intelligence from high-priority targets such as government networks, research facilities, and journalists. This successful operation, named ‘Operation Medusa,’ was a multi-nation effort, with participating agencies from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New-Zealand, highlighting the importance of information sharing and cooperation between security organizations.

Snake is considered to be the most advanced and sophisticated cyber espionage tool designed and used by Russia’s FSB. Over the last two decades it has been detected in over 50 countries across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, including the United States and Russia itself. The malware was primarily used to collect sensitive intelligence from high-priority targets over long periods of time – months and, in some cases, even years. For this reason, Snake was designed and redesigned over the years to be an extremely stealthy and persistent malware, posing a significant threat to national security and privacy.

To covertly disable Snake, the US government launched ‘Operation Medusa’ and created a cybertool called ‘Perseus.’ According to some reports, Perseus essentially used coding to demand that the Snake malware overwrite itself. This operation marks a significant victory against nation-sponsored cyber espionage and emphasizes the importance of coordinated international efforts to combat cyberwarfare.

This incident also highlights the importance of defense pacts in cyberwarfare, just as much as conventional warfare. The same can be true for commercial security vendors, who should share information and cooperate to bring down sophisticated attackers. The fact that the hunting of Snake has been going for about 20 years serves as a reminder that cyberwarfare is not a new concept. However as more devices become smart and IoT proliferates, it creates new risks for individuals and organizations and its impact becomes greater and more apparent.

The disclosure of this defensive act by the participating agencies in such a public manner is both rare and intriguing. CISA’s comprehensive technical documentation, a recommended read for any cyber-security researcher, not only gives us a look at the internals of a nation-level cyber espionage program but also equips security vendors with valuable tools to effectively defend against it. Notably, Armis has been successfully detecting variants of Snake since 2021.

The takedown of Snake malware marks a significant milestone in the constantly evolving world of cyberwarfare. This successful operation underscores the importance of international cooperation and information sharing between security organizations. It’s not every day that we witness a public disclosure of such a defense operation, shedding light on an attack tool that’s impressively sophisticated and rarely seen. It’s a reminder that cyberwarfare is an ongoing threat that must be taken seriously and requires constant vigilance and collaboration to protect against.

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