Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Election Security , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

The Global Menace of the Russian Sandworm Hacking Team

Russian Cyber Sabotage Unit Sandworm Adopting Advanced Techniques, Mandiant Warns
The Global Menace of the Russian Sandworm Hacking Team
Mandiant newly designated the Russian military intelligence hacking team known as Sandworm as APT44. (Image: Shutterstock)

Russia's preeminent cyber sabotage unit presents "one of the widest and high severity cyber threats globally" due to its advanced capabilities and successes in disrupting global critical infrastructure sectors, a new report warns.

See Also: Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity & Risk Monitoring: Elections Infrastructure

Sandworm, the cyberwarfare division of Russia's military intelligence service, is a "flexible instrument of power capable of servicing Russia's wide ranging national interests and ambitions, including efforts to undermine democratic processes globally," said Mandiant. The Google-owned threat intelligence firm published findings Wednesday warning that the group's operations run the gamut from traditional phishing to Trojanized software installers.

Mandiant newly designated Sandworm as APT44 to differentiate it from another hacking unit within the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate that Mandiant will continue to track as APT28. Specialists in Russian hacking also know the two groups as Unit 74455 and Unit 26165, respectively.

Sandworm primarily targets government, defense, transportation, energy, media and civil society organizations with multi-pronged attacks. It's responsible for nearly all of the destructive cyberattacks in Ukraine for the past decade, including energy grid blackouts in 2015 and 2016 and a flotilla of wipers released when Russia's war of conquest against Ukraine began in February 2022. Despite its heavyweight status, the group has been judicious about deploying its most advanced - and likely most costly - tools, preferring lightweight and expendable tools.

Almost certainly like its Chinese counterparts, Sandworm relies on an ecosystem of private sector contractors and talent culled from the criminal underground - and that reliance extends to using criminal bulletproof hosting infrastructure and tools (see: Chinese Hacking Contractor iSoon Leaks Internal Documents).

The group's ambitions have long been global: "The group's readiness to conduct cyber operations in furtherance of the Kremlin's wider strategic objectives globally is ingrained in its mandate," the report says. Past attacks include a 2016 hack against the Democratic National Committee, the 2017 NotPetya wave of encrypting software and the 2018 unleashing of malware known as Olympic Destroyer that disrupted the Winter Olympics being held in South Korea.

The group has recently turned to mobile devices and networks, including a 2023 attempt to deploy malware programmed to spy on Ukrainian battlefield management apps (see: Ukraine Fends Off Sandworm Battlefield Espionage Ploy).

According to Mandiant, the group is directing and influencing the development of "hacktivist" identities in a bid to augment the psychological effects of its operations. Especially following the February 2022 invasion, Sandworm has used a series of pro-Russian Telegram channels including XakNet Team and Solntsepek to claim responsibility for hacks and leak stolen information. Sandworm also appears to have a close relationship with CyberArmyofRussia_Reborn. Mandiant judges "that the operators behind APT44 have the ability to direct and influence CyberArmyofRussia_Reborn's activity across multiple platforms (see: Ukrainian Telcos Targeted by Suspected Sandworm Hackers).

Sandworm frequently gains an initial foothold into systems by exploiting edge infrastructure such as routers and virtual private network appliances, and it has continued to use Trojanized software installers to achieve opportunistic access to potential targets of interest. Mandiant said the group has been coordinating the timing of its attacks with Russia's conventional military activity in Ukraine, as in 2022 when the unit disrupted information technology and operational technology systems at a power plant amid Russian drone strikes that targeted the country's energy grid.

"Despite its bias for action and emphasis on psychological effect, APT44 has shown itself to be patient, resourceful, and remain undetected for long periods of time in victim environments," the researchers said. "We assess that changing Western political dynamics, future elections, and emerging issues in Russia’s near abroad will continue to shape APT44's operations for the foreseeable future."

About the Author

Chris Riotta

Chris Riotta

Managing Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Riotta is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He earned his master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he served as 2021 class president. His reporting has appeared in NBC News, Nextgov/FCW, Newsweek Magazine, The Independent and more.

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