CISA Orders Federal Agencies to Turn Off SolarWinds Products 


A critical flaw in software used throughout government was reportedly used to breach a major security company and at least two federal agencies.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency ordered all government departments by noon Monday to identify and shut off instances of SolarWinds Orion software running or connected to any government system, as agencies scrambled to mitigate potential damage from a critical vulnerability in software used by a huge swath of the federal government and military.

News broke over the weekend that officials at CISA and the FBI were investigating breaches at two of the largest federal agencies—the Commerce and Treasury departments—related to a flaw in the SolarWinds Orion software. Early reports suggest hackers working for the Russian government were involved in the breaches.

The attacks targeted Orion software versions 2019.4 HF 5 through 2020.2.1—the versions released between March 2020 and June 2020.

On its site, the company issued an advisory urging clients to update to the latest version of the Orion software, 2020.2.1 HF 1, available through the customer portal. However, federal agencies are instructed not to install—or reinstall—any instances of SolarWinds Orion until cleared by CISA, per an emergency directive issued late Sunday.

In the emergency directive—only the fifth in the agency’s history—CISA officials are requiring federal agencies identify instances of the SolarWinds software in their systems and “immediately disconnect or power down SolarWinds Orion products” by noon Monday, the alert states. The directive only applies to civilian agencies, as CISA does not have authority over the Defense Department or intelligence agencies.

The directive is not optional and instructs agencies to leave the products disconnected from agency networks for the foreseeable future.

“Until such time as CISA directs affected entities to rebuild the Windows operating system and reinstall the SolarWinds software package, agencies are prohibited from (re)joining the Windows host OS to the enterprise domain,” the directive states [original emphasis]. “Affected entities should expect further communications from CISA and await guidance before rebuilding from trusted sources utilizing the latest version of the product available.”

IT managers should proactively block all incoming traffic—from outside the agency network—directed toward a system or enclave where “any version of SolarWinds Orion software has been installed,” CISA said [original emphasis]. Security teams should also begin hunting for suspicious users and accounts, which should be removed when found.

Agencies have until noon Monday to submit a form to CISA attesting “that the affected devices were either disconnected or powered down,” the directive states. Department-level chief information officers—given top-down authority over component CIOs under the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act—must sign off on the submission.

Agencies are also required by noon to have searched out and reported instances of:

  • [SolarWinds.Orion.Core.BusinessLayer.dll] with a file hash of [b91ce2fa41029f6955bff20079468448]
  • [C:\WINDOWS\SysWOW64\netsetupsvc.dll]
  • Other indicators related to this issue to be shared by CISA

Additionally, agencies “that have the expertise”— or “staff or supporting personnel that are properly trained in taking a forensic image of system memory and have tooling readily-available to immediately do so”—should image systems to capture any evidence of compromise or intrusion, such as “new users or service accounts, privileged or otherwise.”

The SolarWinds Orion product is used to monitor and optimize IT infrastructure in a large-scale environment, like that at most federal agencies. The tools look at which devices and processes are using the most resources and either make sure those resources are available or help IT managers resolve potential issues.

The company claims on its website to service many federal and defense customers, including the Census Bureau, departments of Justice, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, Oak Ridge and Sandia national laboratories, the Pentagon, Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and the intelligence community.

A dive into contracting documents by analysts at The Pulse of GovCon shows a long list of customers that have purchased the Orion software, specifically:

  • Interior Department, including Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Parks Service, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Interior Business Center, which provides managed human resources, accounting and IT services to other federal agencies
  • Defense Logistics Agency
  • Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  • Air Force
  • Army
  • Navy
  • Energy Department
  • Agriculture Department, including the Farm Service Agency
  • General Services Administration, including the Federal Acquisition Service
  • Justice Department, including the FBI
  • Transportation Department, including the Federal Highway Administration
  • Health and Human Services Department, including the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health
  • Treasury Department, including the IRS and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
  • Commerce Department, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Census Bureau
  • National Science Foundation
  • State Department
  • Homeland Security Department, including the Transportation Security Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Veterans Affairs Department

While CISA runs point, the National Security Council is managing a “whole-of-government” response, according to spokesman John Ullyot.

“The NSC is working closely with @CISAgov, @FBI, the intelligence community, and affected departments and agencies to coordinate a swift and effective whole-of-government recovery and response to the recent compromise,” Ullyot said in a statement posted Monday morning on Twitter.

While the emergency directive only applies to federal agencies, CISA also issued a nationwide alert through US-CERT. The notice directs organizations to the SolarWinds security advisory on the company’s website and to additional resources from FireEye—a cybersecurity company that was also targeted in the campaign—to help with detection and countermeasures.