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Tuesday, 22 December 2020 10:13

First US CISO puzzled why spooks did not detect SolarWinds attack Featured

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The first chief information security officer of the US Government says he cannot figure out why the intelligence community did not find out about the attacks launched on various government agencies and private firms in advance "and give US Cyber Command the information needed to interdict these actors before they struck".

Brigadier-General Gregory J. Touhill said in a blog post issued on Monday: "Given the publication of Sandworm and recent DoJ indictments of Russian cyber operators, you’d think the intelligence community would be on the lookout for these actors.

"An attack like this highlights just how hard it is to find and interdict attacks at cyber speed."

The attack came to light this month when cyber security firm FireEye announced on 9 December AEDT that it had been compromised and had its Red Team tools stolen.

Five days later, FireEye issued details about attacks using malware which it called SUNBURST, which it said had been used to hit both private and public entities, by corrupting the Orion network management software, a product of SolarWinds.

A number of US Government departments — Homeland Security and Treasury among them — have been named as being affected. FireEye, too, appears to have been a victim. The Orion software has very wide usage in the US and also in Britain.

Touhill said given the presumed attribution of the attackers, it was very likely that they still had hidden capabilities in victims' networks that would be very difficult to find and eradicate.

"That will likely force many to conclude that the only way to neutralise the threat is to 'burn down' their existing network and rebuild, probably leveraging more cloud-based 'as-a-service' capabilities and/or taking a Zero Trust approach," he added.

Touhill also criticised Microsoft for the fact that its Office 365 mail was penetrated. "The revelation that government instances of Microsoft 0365 email were penetrated by the attacker by hijacking user credentials indicates that Microsoft’s conditional access is insufficient to properly implement Zero Trust," he said.

"I also don’t believe it was just email that was exposed in the O365 environment. Assume it all was breached. This isn’t over. I suspect that we’ll find there are a lot more victims in both public and private sectors."

He said, in his opinion, the attackers had the following objectives:

"They wanted to gain access to specific targets to secure access to specific information. Based on what I’m seeing, they likely were successful.

"They wanted to penetrate important supply chains used by government and critical infrastructure. Check that box.

"They wanted to see what capabilities we had to detect their use of certain tools, tactics, techniques, and procedures. With the report of their success against FireEye, check that box. I’ll bet they visited FireEye competitors too.

"Given the wide penetration their successful attack has brought, the widespread fear, uncertainty and doubt in the efficacy of current cyber security products and capabilities wrought by the attack revelations is an extra bonus for the attackers."


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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