The New York Times has an in-depth article on the latest information about the SolarWinds hack (not a great name, since it’s much more far-reaching than that).
Interviews with key players investigating what intelligence agencies believe to be an operation by Russia’s S.V.R. intelligence service revealed these points:
- The breach is far broader than first believed. Initial estimates were that Russia sent its probes only into a few dozen of the 18,000 government and private networks they gained access to when they inserted code into network management software made by a Texas company named SolarWinds. But as businesses like Amazon and Microsoft that provide cloud services dig deeper for evidence, it now appears Russia exploited multiple layers of the supply chain to gain access to as many as 250 networks.
- The hackers managed their intrusion from servers inside the United States, exploiting legal prohibitions on the National Security Agency from engaging in domestic surveillance and eluding cyberdefenses deployed by the Department of Homeland Security.
- “Early warning” sensors placed by Cyber Command and the National Security Agency deep inside foreign networks to detect brewing attacks clearly failed. There is also no indication yet that any human intelligence alerted the United States to the hacking.
- The government’s emphasis on election defense, while critical in 2020, may have diverted resources and attention from long-brewing problems like protecting the “supply chain” of software. In the private sector, too, companies that were focused on election security, like FireEye and Microsoft, are now revealing that they were breached as part of the larger supply chain attack.
- SolarWinds, the company that the hackers used as a conduit for their attacks, had a history of lackluster security for its products, making it an easy target, according to current and former employees and government investigators. Its chief executive, Kevin B. Thompson, who is leaving his job after 11 years, has sidestepped the question of whether his company should have detected the intrusion.
- Some of the compromised SolarWinds software was engineered in Eastern Europe, and American investigators are now examining whether the incursion originated there, where Russian intelligence operatives are deeply rooted.
Separately, it seems that the SVR conducted a dry run of the attack five months before the actual attack:
The hackers distributed malicious files from the SolarWinds network in October 2019, five months before previously reported files were sent to victims through the company’s software update servers. The October files, distributed to customers on Oct. 10, did not have a backdoor embedded in them, however, in the way that subsequent malicious files that victims downloaded in the spring of 2020 did, and these files went undetected until this month.
“This tells us the actor had access to SolarWinds’ environment much earlier than this year. We know at minimum they had access Oct. 10, 2019. But they would certainly have had to have access longer than that,” says the source. “So that intrusion [into SolarWinds] has to originate probably at least a couple of months before that - probably at least mid-2019 [if not earlier].”
The files distributed to victims in October 2019 were signed with a legitimate SolarWinds certificate to make them appear to be authentic code for the company’s Orion Platform software, a tool used by system administrators to monitor and configure servers and other computer hardware on their network.