Hacking Campaign Fuels Calls for Information Sharing Mandate

FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia, SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna and Microsoft President Brad Smith testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Feb. 23.

FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia, SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna and Microsoft President Brad Smith testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Feb. 23. Drew Angerer/AP

Senators weigh potential protections from liability for incident reports amid concerns about cyber hygiene.

Democrats and Republicans of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as key private-sector victims of a massive hacking campaign that compromised several federal agencies, were united on the need for mandatory reporting of cybersecurity incidents during a hearing on the breaches. 

The committee heard Tuesday from leaders of network management company SolarWinds, cybersecurity firm FireEye, and tech giant Microsoft—all of which were victims of the campaign—as well as the CEO of CrowdStrike, which is working with SolarWinds on the company’s investigation of the hack.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., praised the witnesses for coming forward while expressing disappointment, along with a number of Republican senators, that a representative from Amazon Web Services declined a request to provide testimony.

Warner suggested, and Microsoft President Brad Smith agreed, that other companies could have been similarly involved but are opting not to publicly disclose anything. 

“When a large enterprise like Amazon is invited, they ought to be participating,” Warner said. “There are other brand-name, known IT and software and cloud services that may have been vulnerable to this kind of incident as well.” 

Warner said if it weren’t for FireEye’s voluntary reporting of the intrusion, officials might still be in the dark.

Responding to a question from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M, about limitations on information sharing in contracts between agencies and their vendors, Smith said there is an opportunity to reform the 2015 Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act so that details can flow freely across the government. 

On the private-sector side, companies have largely resisted sharing information about cybersecurity incidents due to a fear of liability, as SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said Monday at a think tank event

Warner said it’s important to have a system of mandatory reporting, even if it means granting organizations some liability protections. He highlighted a 2012 bill authored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would have required the secretary of the Homeland Security Department to establish requirements for federal agencies and critical infrastructure owners to report cybersecurity incidents.

Collins said the bill was largely defeated due to the lobbying efforts of a company the FBI later reported had been hacked. But during the hearing, all the witnesses agreed on the need for some sort of mandatory reporting requirement. 

FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia suggested one way of getting around companies’ liability concerns would be to require first responders, which would include cyber-focused companies like his and CrowdStrike, to send confidential reports to a single agency within the government. Victims often delay reporting until they complete lengthy investigations due to these concerns, he said. 

Mandia added that faster, broader attribution in the case of nation-state actors would also help put companies at ease.  

“If there's public attribution that said ‘SolarWinds was compromised by a nation-state,’ good enough,” he said. “It takes the wind out of the sails of all the plaintiffs' lawsuits that we all get when we get compromised, and we tell the world about it.”

FireEye has so far resisted specifically attributing the hacking campaign to a single nation-state, but government officials have said the intrusion was “likely Russian” in origin. On Tuesday, Mandia came much closer to pinning the blame on the Kremlin. 

“Whoever this threat actor is—and we all pretty much know who it is—this has been a multi-decade campaign for them,” he said, noting that digital fingerprints and all the forensics they went through are “not very consistent with Iran, China or North Korea, and it is most consistent with cyber espionage and behaviors we’ve seen out of Russia.”     

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., argued that presenting the hacking campaign as highly sophisticated may be letting hacked entities off the hook. He has unanswered questions about agencies’ use of appropriately configured firewalls and whether those compromised were following the guidance of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Security Agency.  

“The impression that the American people might get from this hearing is that the hackers are such formidable adversaries that there was nothing the American government or our biggest tech companies could have done to protect themselves,” he said. “My view is that message leads to privacy-violating laws and billions of more taxpayer funds for cybersecurity. It might be embarrassing, but the first order of business has to be identifying where well-known cybersecurity measures could have mitigated the damage caused by the breach.”

In a Feb. 19 letter to Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Acting Director Brandon Wales, Wyden also asked why CISA hadn’t mandated guidance on the use of firewalls for agencies.

On the private-sector side, Ramakrishna said SolarWinds’ investigation into how the intruders accessed their network—before using it to deliver trojanized updates to about 18,000 of its customers—has narrowed to three theories. News reports suggest hackers might have been able to take advantage of weak cybersecurity practices at the company.

Warner said an attacker’s level of sophistication shouldn’t relieve entities of the responsibility to implement proper cybersecurity hygiene. He said the government would likely have to create a new system, pointing to the National Transportation Safety Board as a potential model. 

“While I am very open to some level of liability protection, I'm not interested in a liability protection that excuses that kind of sloppy behavior, for example, that took place in Equifax,” he said. “If you report that, you should not be free of your responsibility if you have been a sloppy player.”