Russian Hackers Have Stolen US Secrets

Some of The United States most deeply held secrets may have been stolen by Russian government hackers in a heavy multi-pronged attack which began with a breach at the Solar Winds IT vendor and swiftly extended to leading cyber security firm FireEye, who found that the software tools they use to protect major customers in the US government and major corporations had been weaponised and used to attack their customers. 

The US Cyber Infrastructure Security Agency (CIA) issued an emergency warning as events unfolded rapidly early this week. In the absence of any detailed information from official sources there is considerable debate about what might have been taken.

Could the hackers have obtained nuclear secrets or COVID-19 vaccine data or even Blueprints for next-generation weapons systems? 

It will take a long time to get the answers about what exactly has been taken and how this happened. The hackers are sophisticated and area able to hide their tracks and so some of the crime might not be exposed.  Cyber security experts say that the attack displays the tactics and techniques of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency and a number of US government departments. including the Treasury and Commerce departments, were known to have been hacked via a commercial software update distributed to thousands of companies and government agencies worldwide.

 A Pentagon statement suggested it also used the software, saying that it had “issued guidance and directives to protect” its networks. It would not say, for “operational security reasons”, whether any of its systems may have been hacked. 

Hackers infiltrated US government agencies by infiltrating a malicious code on commercial network management software from SolarWinds, a leading network software and IT services company in March. This  campaign was discovered by the cyber security company FireEye when it found it had been hacked which it immediately disclosed when it alerted the FBI and other federal agencies on December 8th. 

A noted cyber security expert Thomas Rid, Professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London said the campaign’s can be compared to Russia’s three-year 1990s, Moonlight Maze hacking of US government targets, including NASA and the Pentagon. 

The US government has not said which agencies were hacked and no private-sector victims have made themselves know to date, although defence contractors and telecommunications companies have been popular targets with state-backed cyber spies. ​Like intelligence agents, nation-state hackers generally focus on the latest on weapons technologies and missile defense systems vital to national security. 

It is understood that the hackers carefully exfiltrated data, often encrypting it so it wasn’t clear what was being taken, and expertly covering their tracks.

President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien convened a top-level interagency meeting later this week and the White House has said a coordinating team had been created to respond, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. At a briefing for congressional staff  the DHS did not say how many agencies were hacked and the Trump administration has released very little information.

Critics have long complained that the Trump administration has failed to address cybersecurity threats, including a wave of ransomware attacks that have hobbled state and local governments and hospitals. “It’s been a frustrating time, the last four years. I mean, nothing has happened seriously at all in cybersecurity,” said Brandon Valeriano, an expert adviser to the Cyber Solarium Commission, which was created by Congress to fortify the nation’s cyber defenses. 

A senior FireEye executive Charles Carmakal said that the company was aware of “dozens of incredibly high-value targets” infiltrated by the hackers and was helping “a number of organisations respond to their intrusions.” He did not name any, saying only that he expected many more to learn that they have been compromised. 

Carmakal also said that the hackers would have activated remote-access back doors only on targets sure to have prized data. It is manual, demanding work and moving networks around risks detection.

The SolarWinds campaign highlights the lack of mandatory minimum-security rules for commercial software used on federal computer networks. Zoom video conferencing software is another example. It was approved for use on federal computer networks last year, yet security experts found it was being exploitable by hackers, after federal workers sent home by the pandemic began using it.

It also the need for a National Cyber Director at the White House, a position subject to Senate confirmation. Congress approved such a position in a recently passed defense bill.
 

Reuters:     Washington Times:        Security Week:       Independent:     

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