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Massive hack may have exposed America’s biggest secrets


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Russian hackers broke into U.S. federal agencies

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Some of America’s most deeply held secrets may have been stolen in a disciplined, months long operation being blamed on elite Russian government hackers. The possibilities of what might have been purloined are mind-boggling.

Could hackers have obtained nuclear secrets? COVID-19 vaccine data? Blueprints for next-generation weapons systems?

It will take weeks, maybe years in some cases, for digital sleuths combing through U.S. government and private industry networks to get the answers. These hackers are consummate pros at covering their tracks, experts say. Some theft may never be detected.

Hackers broke into the networks of the Treasury and Commerce departments as part of a month’s long global cyberespionage campaign revealed Sunday, just days after the prominent cybersecurity firm FireEye said it had been breached in an attack that industry experts said bore the hallmarks of Russian tradecraft.

In response to what may be a large-scale penetration of U.S. government agencies, the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity arm issued an emergency directive calling on all federal civilian agencies to scour their networks for compromises.

The threat apparently came from the same cyberespionage campaign that has afflicted FireEye, foreign governments and major corporations, and the FBI was investigating.

“This can turn into one of the most impactful espionage campaigns on record,” said cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch.

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News of the hacks, first reported by Reuters, came less than a week after FireEye disclosed that foreign government hackers had broken into its network and stolen the company’s own hacking tools. Many experts suspect Russia is responsible. FireEye’s customers include federal, state and local governments and top global corporations.

The apparent conduit for the Treasury and Commerce Department hacks — and the FireEye compromise — is a hugely popular piece of server software called SolarWinds. 

It is used by hundreds of thousands of organizations globally, including most Fortune 500 companies and multiple U.S. federal agencies that will now be scrambling to patch up their networks, said Alperovitch, the former chief technical officer of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directive — only the fifth since they were created in 2015 — said U.S. agencies should immediately disconnect or power down any machines running the impacted SolarWinds software.
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FireEye, without naming any specific targets, said in a blog post that its investigation into the hack of its own network had identified “a global campaign” targeting governments and the private sector that, beginning in the spring, had slipped malware into a SolarWinds software update. 

The malware gave the hackers remote access to victims’ networks, and Alperovitch said SolarWinds grants “God-mode” access to a network, making everything visible.

“We anticipate this will be a very large event when all the information comes to light,” said John Hultquist, director of threat analysis at FireEye. “The actor is operating stealthily, but we are certainly still finding targets that they manage to operate in.”

On its website, SolarWinds says its 300,000 customers worldwide including all five branches of the U.S. military, the Pentagon, the State Department, NASA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Justice and the White House. It says the 10 leading U.S. telecommunications companies and top five U.S. accounting firms are also among customers.

FireEye said it had confirmed infections in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including in the health care and oil and gas industry — and had been informing affected customers around the world in the past few days. It said that malware that rode the SolarWinds update did not seed self-propagating malware — like the 2016 NotPetya malware blamed on Russia that caused more than $10 billion in damage globally — and that any actual infiltration of an infected organization required “meticulous planning and manual interaction.”

That means it’s a good bet only a subset of infected organizations were being spied on by the hackers. Nation-states have their cyberespionage priorities, which include COVID-19 vaccine development.

Cybersecurity experts said last week that they considered Russian state hackers to be the main suspect in the FireEye hack.

President Donald Trump has said not a word about this, as he continues to whine about losing the election and playing golf.

Trump tweeted in 2017 that he wants to improve relations with Russia. "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing," Trump said. "When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now." "both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!"

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