SolarWinds Orion: The Biggest Hack of the Year

    Federal agencies faced one of their worst nightmares this past week when they were informed of a massive compromise by foreign hackers within their network management software. An emergency directive from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) instructed all agencies using SolarWinds products to review their networks and disconnect or power down the company’s Orion software. 

    Orion has been used by the government for years and the software operates at the heart of some crucial federal systems. SolarWinds has been supplying agencies for some-time as well, developing tools to understand how their servers were operating, and later branching into network and infrastructure monitoring. Orion is the structure binding all of those things together. According to a preliminary search of the Federal Procurement Data System – Next Generation (FPDS-NG), at least 32 federal agencies bought SolarWinds Orion software since 2006.

    Listed below are some of the agencies and departments within the government that contracts for SolarWinds Orion products have been awarded to. Even though all them bought SolarWinds Orion products, that doesn’t mean they were using them between March and June, when the vulnerability was introduced during updates. Agencies that have ongoing contracts for SolarWinds Orion products include the Army, DOE, FLETC, ICE, IRS, and VA. SolarWinds estimates that less than 18,000 users installed products with the vulnerability during that time.

    • Bureaus of Land Management, Ocean Energy Management, and Safety and Environmental Enforcement, as well as the National Park Service and Office of Policy, Budget, and Administration within the Department of the Interior
    • Air Force, Army, Defense Logistics Agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Navy within the Department of Defense
    • Department of Energy
    • Departmental Administration and Farm Service Agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture
    • Federal Acquisition Service within the General Services Administration
    • FBI within the Department of Justice
    • Federal Highway Administration and Immediate Office of the Secretary within the Department of Transportation
    • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Office of Procurement Operations within the Department of Homeland Security
    • Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services
    • IRS and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency within the Department of the Treasury
    • NASA
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of Commerce
    • National Science Foundation
    • Peace Corps
    • State Department
    • Department of Veterans Affairs

    YOU CAN READ THE JOINT STATEMENT BY THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI), THE CYBERSECURITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE SECURITY AGENCY (CISA), AND THE OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE (ODNI) HERE.

    How the Attack was Discovered

    When Cyber security firm FireEye Inc. discovered that it was the victim of a malicious cyber-attack, the company’s investigators began trying to figure out exactly how attackers got past its secured defenses. They quickly found out,  they were not the only victims of the attack. Investigators uncovered a weakness in a product made by one of its software providers, SolarWinds Corp. After looking through 50,000 lines of source code, they were able to conclude there was a backdoor within SolarWinds. FireEye contacted SolarWinds and law enforcement immediately after the backdoor vulnerability was found.

    Hackers, believed to be part of an elite Russian group, took advantage of the vulnerability to insert malware, which found its way into the systems of SolarWinds customers with software updates. So far, as many as 18,000 entities may have downloaded the malware. The hackers who attacked FireEye stole sensitive tools that the company uses to find vulnerabilities in clients’ computer networks. The investigation by FireEye discovered that the hack on itself was part of a global campaign by a highly complex attacker that also targeted government, consulting, technology, telecom and extractive entities in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

    The hackers that implemented the attack were sophisticated unlike any seen before. They took innovative steps to conceal their actions, operating from servers based in the same city as an employee they were pretending to be. The hackers were able to breach U.S. government entities by first attacking the SolarWinds IT provider. By compromising the software used by government entities and corporations to monitor their network, hackers were able to gain a position into their network and dig deeper all while appearing as legitimate traffic.

    Read how Microsoft and US Cyber Command joined forces to stop a vicious malware attack earlier this year.

    How Can the Attack Be Stopped?

    Technology firms are stopping some of the hackers’ key infrastructure as the U.S. government works to control a hacking campaign that relies on software in technology from SolarWinds. FireEye is working with Microsoft and the domain registrar GoDaddy to take over one of the domains that attackers had used to send malicious code to its victims. The move is not a cure-all for stopping the cyber-attack, but it should help stem the surge of victims, which includes the departments of Treasury and Homeland Security.

     

    According to FireEye, the seized domain, known as a “killswitch,” will affect new and previous infections of the malicious code coming from that particular domain. Depending on the IP address returned under certain conditions, the malware would terminate itself and prevent further execution. The “killswitch” will make it harder for the attackers to use the malware that they have already deployed. Although, FireEye warned that hackers still have other ways of keeping access to networks. With the sample of invasions FireEye has seen, the hacker moved quickly to establish additional persistent mechanisms to access to victim networks.

     

    The FBI is investigating the compromise of SolarWinds’ software updates, which was linked with a Russian intelligence service. SolarWinds’ software is used throughout Fortune 500 companies, and in critical sectors such as electricity. The “killswitch” action highlights the power that major technology companies have to throw up roadblocks to well-resourced hackers. This is very similar to Microsoft teaming up with the US Cyber Command to disrupt a powerful Trickbot botnet in October.

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