The Hack Roundup: CISA Official Says 30% of Victims Didn’t Use SolarWinds

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It is not accurate to describe widespread cyber intrusions that compromised several government agencies and cybersecurity companies as the SolarWinds hack, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Acting Director Brandon Wales said, putting a figure on the significant number of the victims that didn’t use the company’s IT management software.

CISA previously noted that SolarWinds was not the only attack vector in the hacking campaign, and both CISA and the National Security Agency have tailored their guidance on the suspected threat actor to address configuration issues in Microsoft’s Office 365 offering. 

In an interview for a Wall Street Journal story published Friday, Wales said approximately 30% of the hackers’ victims, both in the public and private sectors, didn’t have a direct connection to SolarWinds. Wales also said Microsoft’s was the only cloud service the agency knows to have been targeted.

“It is absolutely correct that this campaign should not be thought of as the SolarWinds campaign,” he said.

The Journal also reported that SolarWinds is investigating whether the hackers initially gained access to its systems via Microsoft’s cloud, rather than the other way around.

In an editor’s note on a blog post by President Brad Smith following initial reports of the breaches—including Microsoft’s compromise—Microsoft noted that it had “detected malicious SolarWinds binaries in our environment,” just like other SolarWinds customers. SolarWinds estimated 18,000 of its customers installed an update carrying malware the hackers had inserted into their code and used to establish remote control of victims’ computers and exfiltrate data.

Microsoft, which has promoted its own extended detection and response products in dissecting the hacking campaign, reported a $10 billion surge in its security business over the last year. “The recent SolarWinds attacks are a stark reminder of how critical security is to our customers,” Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella said Wednesday.

Members of Congress are looking to the NSA for answers on whether learnings from a similar hack–also delivered via a malicious software update—Juniper Networks revealed in 2015 could have helped to prevent the SolarWinds component of the current hacking campaign.   

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and nine other members of Congress sent a letter to the agency Thursday, noting in a press release that, “despite promising a full investigation after it announced the breach, Juniper has never publicly accounted for the incident.”

“After Juniper’s 2015 public disclosure that it inadvertently delivered software updates and products to customers containing malicious code, what actions did NSA take to protect itself, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. government from future software supply chain hacks?” reads the letter. “For each action, please identify why it was not successful in preventing the compromise of numerous government agencies in 2020 by a malware-laden update delivered by SolarWinds.”

The FBI is “working nonstop” on its investigation of the hacking campaign, including to determine attribution, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, according to Politico’s Eric Geller, who tweeted about his participation in a Fordham University event Thursday.

Phil Quade, the chief information security officer of cybersecurity firm Fortinet, and a former NSA Director’s special assistant for cyber, told Nextgov though attribution is useful in the long term, it is “rarely certain enough or timely enough to inform immediate operational action.” 

But the White House, in particular, is under pressure to say how it will respond to the hack—the subject of the first substantive question at a press briefing the administration held during its first day in office—especially in the context of Russia, which officials have said was “likely” responsible.

“We need to whack the hell out of the bad guys when they commit these acts like SolarWinds,” Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said during the State of the Net Conference Wednesday. “We all know it was Russia, and to my knowledge, nothing has happened yet from an offensive standpoint and we need to do that. From a sanction standpoint, we need to do that, from an indictment standpoint, we need to do that.”

On Tuesday, the White House released a summary of a phone call between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. Biden brought up the hack, along with other alleged acts of aggression against the U.S. and the Russian opposition leader, according to the summary.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration is urgently reviewing the hacking campaign, in response to a question Wednesday during his first news conference in the role. 

The State Department’s organization of its cybersecurity work is under a microscope. The Government Accountability Office concluded a proposal to create a new bureau of Cyber Security and Emerging Technology is not aligned with congressional goals and is not based on evidence, as it should be. The GAO report out Thursday notes the State Department’s proposal does not address concerns State itself raised about maintaining internal coordination on cybersecurity matters related to arms and security, and those with economic import, such as digital trade and data privacy, under the new organization of its resources.

Members of Congress belonging to the Cyberspace Solarium Commission advocate a prominent role for the State Department on cybersecurity and want the leader of a unified bureau there to report directly to the secretary on the issue. Shortly before leaving office, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his approval of the new bureau, prompting criticism from the lawmakers. But the GAO said, as of its report’s publication date, State had not created the bureau. 

Blinken expressed his support for the Trump administration’s creation of the new cybersecurity bureau, according to a department spokesperson who told the Washington Post—in response to the GAO report—the new secretary will look closely at where it should be placed within the department and what the scope of its responsibilities will be.  

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