It was clear from the start that a cyberattack by suspected Russian hackers aimed at several US government agencies was going to be bad. One clue: US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien cut short a trip overseas to rush back to Washington to help manage the crisis.
On Thursday, the reality of just how sprawling — and potentially damaging — the breach might be came into sharper focus.
It started with a bulletin from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), warning that the hackers were sophisticated, patient and well-resourced, representing a “grave risk” to federal, state and local governments, as well as critical infrastructure and the private sector.
Bloomberg News reported that at least three state governments were hacked, which followed reports of other breaches: the city network in Austin, Texas, and the US nuclear weapons agency. Software giant Microsoft Corp also said its systems were exposed.
The US Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the country’s nuclear stockpile, said that the malware was isolated to business networks and did not affect national security functions.
Nonetheless, the effect of the revelations was confirmation that no single person or agency is certain of exactly what the hackers had infiltrated, let alone the full extent of what was taken.
US president-elect Joe Biden interrupted a series of high-profile appointment announcements to weigh in.
“I want to be clear: My administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government — and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office,” Biden said.
So far, US President Donald Trump has not commented on the attack.
The hackers installed what is known as a backdoor in widely used software from Texas-based SolarWinds Corp, whose customers include myriad government agencies and Fortune 500 companies.
That malicious backdoor, which was installed by 18,000 SolarWinds customers, allowed the hackers access to their computer networks.
US authorities — and governments around the world — are only now beginning to uncover who was unlucky enough to receive the hackers’ full attention.
Microsoft said it detected the backdoor in SolarWinds’ software in its “environment” and had “isolated and removed” it.
The company said that none of its customer data nor its products were accessed or used to further attacks on others.
In a blog post, Microsoft said it had identified more than 40 customers that the hackers had “targeted more precisely and compromised,” including “security and other technology firms,” think tanks and government contractors, in addition to government agencies.
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