Who are Fancy Bears? Fancy Bear vs Fancy Bears, what’s the difference?

A hacker group going by the name Fancy Bears has claimed responsibility for leaking details of 150 footballers who were caught using banned substances in 2015.

The Fancy Bears hacker group shares its name with a notorious Russian hacker group accused of influencing presidential elections in the US, France and other countries.

Yesterday, Fancy Bears gained limelight after the group released confidential WADA documents that contained details of footballers who had used banned substances in the past as well as those who had obtained the authority's permission to use therapeutic drugs during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Since therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) are awarded by WADA to athletes who suffer long-term ailments like arthritis, asthma, joint inflammation and tooth pain, they are not necessarily performance-enhancing drugs, thereby reducing to dust Fancy Bears' claims that they used banned substances during the event.

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However, the more shocking revelation was about the 150 footballers who were caught using banned substances like cocaine, amfetamine, salbutamol in excess quantity and other stimulants by FIFA as well as various national anti-doping agencies. Even though the document named the agencies who uncovered the footballers, names of such footballers were not mentioned in it.

The revelation reminds us of a previous leak when a Russian hacker group named Fancy Bear hacked into the WADA database and released details of medications used by US gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Serena Williams.

The similarity in their names has made experts question if the groups are related or if both hacks were conducted by the same group. While the Fancy Bears website uses icons that were previously attributed to the Russian hacker group, it also uses a phrase that is generally used by another multi-national hacker group named Anonymous.

"We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us," it says.

The group is now threatening to release further details of tainted athletes who have used banned substances in the past, starting with the US Olympic team.

"We will start with the U.S. team which has disgraced its name by tainted victories. We will also disclose exclusive information about other national Olympic teams later. Wait for sensational proof of famous athletes taking doping substances any time soon," the group said.

The alleged motive behind the latest hacking of WADA's database suggests that the new group may have links to Russia. Last year's hack of WADA's databases by Fancy Bear was stated to be in retaliation against the banning of Russian athletes from participating in the World Athletics Championship in London after the WADA had found many Russian athletes guilty of using banned substances.

The latest hack could be in retaliation to an ongoing investigation being conducted by the FIFA on the alleged use of banned substances by the Russian national football team. Following large-scale use of banned drugs by Russian athletes in the recent past, there are also open calls to strip Russia of World Cup in 2018.

"As international pressure on Russia intensifies, with open calls to strip Russia of World Cup in 2018 and recently the FIFA investigation into suspected prohibited substance abuse of the national soccer team, today's release was almost guaranteed to surface," says threat intelligence firm Insikt Group.

Fancy Bear, the original Russian hacker group, is also known as APT28, Sofacy Group, Sednit, STRONTIUM and most commonly, Pawn Storm. The group is well-known for conducting cyber-attacks and smear campaigns on armed forces, the defense industry, news media, and politicians to influence public opinion and in turn, election results. It gained global notoriety after it conducted a series of alleged state-sponsored cyber-attacks on Emmanuel Macron's campaign websites prior to the French Presidential elections.

Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin added fuel to the concerns of cybersecurity experts on Russian hacker groups like Fancy Bear being sponsored by the Russian state. Speaking at an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin displayed a favourable opinion towards such hackers, calling them 'patriotically minded' and 'free-spirited.'

“Hackers are free-spirited people, like artists. They read something that is happening in interstate relations, and if they're patriotically minded, they start making their contribution," he said.

The fact that Fancy Bears is using symbols and quotes from both Fancy Bear and Anonymous suggests that there is an attempt at hiding the group's real identity. While there is no evidence that supports this notion, the timing of the WADA hack suggests that 'patriotic' Russian hackers could be in play here.