US: Hack of Federal Agencies Likely Russian in Origin’

January 6, 2021by Eric Tucker and Frank Bajak, Associated Press
The FBI seal is seen before a news conference at FBI headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top national security agencies confirmed Tuesday that Russia was likely responsible for a massive hack of U.S. government departments and corporations, rejecting President Donald Trump’s claim that China might be to blame.

The rare joint statement represented the U.S. government’s first formal attempt to assign responsibility for the breaches at multiple agencies and to assign a possible motive for the operation. It said the hacks appeared to be intended for “intelligence gathering,” suggesting the evidence so far pointed to a Russian spying effort rather than an attempt to damage or disrupt U.S. government operations.

The agencies made clear the Russian operation was “ongoing” and indicated the hunt for threats was not over.

“This is a serious compromise that will require a sustained and dedicated effort to remediate,” said the statement, distributed by the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

It was not clear why the statement was issued Tuesday, especially since government officials and cybersecurity experts have for weeks believed that Russia was responsible. Even so, the announcement puts the imprimatur of national security agencies, albeit belatedly, on information that members of Congress had clamored for the White House to make public.

The Associated Press reported last month that officials at the White House had been prepared to issue a statement that accused Russia of being the main actor in the hack but were told at the last minute to stand down. The day of that report, Dec. 19, Trump tweeted that the “Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality” and suggested without any evidence that China could be to blame.

Sen. Mark Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, lamented the belated statement, saying “it’s unfortunate that it has taken over three weeks after the revelation of an intrusion this significant for this Administration to finally issue a tentative attribution.” He said he hoped “that we will begin to see something more definitive” as well as a warning to Russia, which has denied involvement in the hack.

With the public finger-pointing taking place in the final two weeks of the Trump administration, it will almost certainly fall to incoming President Joe Biden to decide how to respond to a hacking campaign that amounts to Washington’s worst cyberespionage failure to date. Biden has said his administration will impose “substantial costs” on countries responsible for U.S. government hacks, but it is unclear whether the response in this case will involve sanctions, prosecution, offensive cyber operations or some combination of those options.

The hacking campaign was extraordinary in scale, with the intruders having stalked through government agencies, defense contractors and telecommunications companies for months by the time it was discovered. Experts say that gave the foreign agents ample time to collect data that could be highly damaging to U.S. national security, though the scope of the breaches and exactly what information was sought is unknown.

An estimated 18,000 organizations were affected by malicious code that piggybacked on popular network-management software from an Austin, Texas, company called SolarWinds. Of those customers, though, “a much smaller number has been compromised by follow-on activity on their systems,” the statement said, noting that fewer than 10 federal government agencies have so far been identified as falling into that category.

The Treasury and Commerce departments are among the agencies known to have been affected. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said after a briefing last month provided to Senate Finance Committee staff that dozens of Treasury Department email accounts were compromised and that hackers had broken into systems used by the department’s highest-ranking officials.

A senior executive of the cybersecurity firm that discovered the malware, FireEye, said last month that “dozens of incredibly high-value targets” have been infiltrated by elite, state-backed hackers. The executive, Charles Carmakal, would not name the targets. Nor has Microsoft, which said it identified more than 40 compromised government and private targets, most in the U.S.

Microsoft said in a blog post last week that hackers tied to the intrusions of government agencies and companies sneaked further into its systems than previously thought and were able to view some of the code underlying Microsoft software, but weren’t able to make any changes to it.

The extent of affected targets remains undisclosed.

“I think it’s highly unlikely at this stage of the investigation they can actually be certain that there are only 10 agencies impacted,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, former chief technical officer of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.

Ben Buchanan, a Georgetown University cyberespionage expert, said the fact that multiple investigating agencies are now attributing the hacking campaign to Russia “removes any remaining serious doubts about the perpetrators.”

As for the number of federal agencies compromised, he said it’s difficult to know “from the outside how they’ve evaluated this.” While such assessments are difficult, Buchanan said, he believes the government must have evidence for the claim given the joint nature of the statement.

U.S. officials, including then-Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and cybersecurity experts have in recent weeks said that Russia was to blame. But Trump, who throughout his term has resisted blaming Moscow for cyber operations, broke from the consensus within his own administration by tweeting that the media was afraid of “discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!).”

Tuesday’s statement makes clear that is not the case, saying the U.S. investigation reveals that a cyber actor, “likely Russian in origin, is responsible for most or all of the recently discovered, ongoing cyber compromises of both government and non-governmental networks.”

“At this time, we believe this was, and continues to be, an intelligence gathering effort. We are taking all necessary steps to understand the full scope of this campaign and respond accordingly,” the statement said.

Cybersecurity

SolarWinds Cyberattack Prompts Calls for Aggressive Countermeasures
Congress
SolarWinds Cyberattack Prompts Calls for Aggressive Countermeasures
March 1, 2021
by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON -- A congressional hearing Friday showed that foreign computer hackers are facing a growing likelihood of counterattack from the United States as a result of the SolarWinds software breach. Lawmakers and computer industry officials agreed the hackers must face consequences to deter them in the... Read More

Massive Breach Fuels Calls for US Action on Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity
Massive Breach Fuels Calls for US Action on Cybersecurity

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jolted by a sweeping hack that may have revealed government and corporate secrets to Russia, U.S. officials are scrambling to reinforce the nation's cyber defenses and recognizing that an agency created two years ago to protect America's networks and infrastructure lacks the money,... Read More

Cybersecurity Experts Caution Congress About 'Global Emergency' from Hackers
Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity Experts Caution Congress About 'Global Emergency' from Hackers
February 11, 2021
by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON -- Cybersecurity experts suggested to a congressional committee Wednesday that lawmakers act quickly to address growing threats from hackers. They mentioned the SolarWinds computer infiltration by the Russians last year and a hacker’s attempt to poison a Florida municipal water supply last week as examples.... Read More

Hack Exposes Vulnerability of Cash-Strapped US Water Plants
Cybercrime
Hack Exposes Vulnerability of Cash-Strapped US Water Plants

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A hacker's botched attempt to poison the water supply of a small Florida city is raising alarms about just how vulnerable the nation's water systems may be to attacks by more sophisticated intruders. Treatment plants are typically cash-strapped, and lack the... Read More

Defense and Homeland Discuss Priorities for Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity
Defense and Homeland Discuss Priorities for Cybersecurity
February 5, 2021
by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON — Dramatic changes in the workforce and service delivery have posed unique security challenges over the last year. Evolving technologies are accommodating training and remote work, but new cybersecurity threats continue to emerge.  In the last few years, directives have required federal agencies to take... Read More

CISA Needs to be ‘Quarterback’ of U.S. Cybersecurity, Rep. Katko Says
Cybersecurity
CISA Needs to be ‘Quarterback’ of U.S. Cybersecurity, Rep. Katko Says
January 28, 2021
by Victoria Turner

Recent cyberattacks on U.S. federal systems point to the need to make the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency the "centralizing authority system" for the nation, said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., during a fireside chat at the State of Net Conference. That said, Katko went on to say... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top