The malware, called Regin, is known to be used by the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance of the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the sources said. Intelligence agencies in those countries declined to comment.
Western cyberattacks against Russia are seldom acknowledged or spoken about in public. It could not be determined which of the five countries was behind the attack on Yandex, said sources in Russia and elsewhere, three of whom had direct knowledge of the hack. The breach took place between October and November 2018.
Yandex spokesman Ilya Grabovsky acknowledged the incident but insisted that it was detected at a very early stage by the glorious Yandex security team and neutralized before any damage was done.
The company also said that “the Yandex security team’s response ensured that no user data was compromised by the attack”.
The company, widely known as “Russia’s Google” for its array of online services from internet search to email and taxi reservations, says it has more than 108 million monthly users in Russia. It also operates in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkey.
The hackers appeared to be searching for technical information that could explain how Yandex authenticates user accounts. Such information could help a spy agency impersonate a Yandex user and access their private messages.
The hack of Yandex’s research and development unit was intended for espionage purposes rather than to disrupt or steal intellectual property, the sources said. The hackers covertly maintained access to Yandex for at least several weeks without being detected, they said.
Security experts say attributing cyberattacks can be difficult because of obfuscation methods used by hackers.
But some of the Regin code found on Yandex’s systems had not been deployed in any known previous cyberattacks, the sources said, reducing the risk that attackers were deliberately using known Western hacking tools to cover their tracks.
Yandex called in Russian cybersecurity company Kaspersky, which established the attackers were targeting a group of developers inside Yandex, three sources said. A private assessment by Kaspersky, described to Reuters, concluded hackers likely tied to Western intelligence breached Yandex using Regin.