SolarWinds Attackers Lurked for 'Several Months' in FireEye's Network

Top execs from FireEye, SolarWinds, Microsoft, and CrowdStrike testified before the US Senate Intelligence Committee today on the aftermath - and ongoing investigations - into the epic attacks.

The attackers who infiltrated SolarWinds Orion's software build and updates had spent "several months" embedded in FireEye's network before the security firm spotted them, Kevin Mandia, CEO of FireEye, told a congressional committee today.

"The attacker wasn't alive every single day" on our network, Mandia told the US Senate Intelligence Committee in response to a question about the attack time frame on FireEye's network. "They were on our systems for three hours on one day, a week would go by, and a couple of hours another day. We weren't a full-time job for [them] ... because they had broken into another 60-plus, if not 100, organizations. There were several days of activity before we detected them."

Mandia, along with Microsoft president Brad Smith, CrowdStrike president and CEO George Kurtz, and  new SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna, testified before the intelligence committee today in a hearing on the so-called SolarWinds cyber espionage attack campaign that US intelligence officials say is most likely the handiwork of Russian nation-state actors.

Conspicuously missing from the panel was Amazon Web Services (AWS), which declined the Senate's invitation to testify -- a snub that appeared to rile several senators on the committee. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., pointed out that the attack was waged inside the US, and some secondary command-and-control nodes were hosted on AWS's infrastructure. 

Mark Warner, D-Va., chair of the committee, noted that companies "who chose not to participate so far, we're going to give them another chance."

AWS did not respond to an inquiry from Dark Reading for this article.

It's still unclear how many other companies, including software firms, may have been targeted and hit in the attacks. FireEye's Mandia noted that the attackers behind the massive campaign walked off with plenty of stolen information -- and they'll be back.

"This group has been around for a decade or more," and they target specific individuals in the government or do work on government projects, he said. They had a plan, data "collection requirements," and were focused on their mission. While their attack tools and tactics will change, their targets won't, he said.

"They've already moved on to whatever is next, and we've gotta go find it," Mandia said. "They're going to be ever-present, and we have to play defense ... and we have to close the security gap better next time."

Meanwhile, a report by The Washington Post today said the Biden administration is preparing sanctions against Russia for the attacks -- a nod that would solidify the intelligence agencies' initial reports that the attacks "appeared" to be out of Russia. FireEye, CrowdStrike, and other security vendors have been hesitant to ID Russia as the perpetrator.

"It's potentially one of the most serious breaches we've seen and know [about]," Warner said. "It was exfiltration [of data], but it could have been exponentially worse. We need to recognize the seriousness of that."

Worse as in destructive, but the execs said there was no sign of anything other than cyber espionage at this point. Even so, the attack raises concerns for US IT infrastructure when software companies get infiltrated and compromised as a foothold into their customers' networks, the ultimate targets.

Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute and former member of the Obama administration's national cybersecurity commission, says there's likely much more about the attacks that remain unknown.

"I do think there's a lot more we don't know. How much more that's dangerous or impactful is unclear," she says. "And how much we don't know that's going to make a difference? That's the question."

Microsoft's Smith also noted the unprecedented scope of the attacks and the difficulty in connecting "the dots" to see the full picture of the attacks. That goes to the challenges faced today in information-sharing between government and the private sector of cyberthreats.

"The nature of threat intelligence is always about connecting the dots, so the more dots you have, the more likely you are to see a pattern and reach a conclusion," he said. "One of the challenges is the dots are so spread out in a variety of private companies."

"There should be some level of information-sharing in an appropriate way back to those of us in the private sector who are first responders," he said.

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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