The depth of the latest Russian hack into the e-mail systems of the Treasury Department, State Department, and other U.S. government agencies is stunning, but the strategy of manipulating a third party to infiltrate computer networks is not, according to Engin Kirda, a professor of computer science at Northeastern who studies computer security.
“It highlights the problem of I.T. outsourcing and also relying on other people’s software to manage your networks,” says Kirda, who holds joint appointments in Northeastern’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences and College of Engineering. “Outsourcing and having professional management software is great, but then your security also depends on their security. If they fail, the implications of this failure might affect thousands of organizations.”
The hackers are believed to have injected malicious code earlier this year into the software updates of SolarWinds, a Texas company that helps manage computer networks for virtually all of the Fortune 500 companies and a wide variety of government clients—including Los Alamos National Laboratory, a designer of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The coordinated attack, which appears to have been waged on a number of fronts, was far more sophisticated than the typical spear-phishing campaigns that trick users into accessing links that appear to be authentic.
Though 18,000 users unwittingly downloaded the updates with the embedded Russian code, the hacks focused mainly on “the highest-value targets,” according to FireEye, a private cybersecurity firm that discovered the attacks. (FireEye itself was targeted and compromised as well.) The precise goals of the hackers, who are thought to represent the Russian intelligence agency S.V.R., remain unknown.