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Why Russia May Have Stepped Up Its Hacking Game

Gen. Paul Nakasone, the National Security Agency director, told NPR ahead of the 2020 elections that the U.S. was "going to expand our insights of our adversaries. ... We're going to know our adversaries better than they know themselves."
Chip Somodevilla
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Gen. Paul Nakasone, the National Security Agency director, told NPR ahead of the 2020 elections that the U.S. was "going to expand our insights of our adversaries. ... We're going to know our adversaries better than they know themselves."

Back in November, Kevin Mandia, CEO of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, opened his mailbox to find an anonymous postcard. It had a simple cartoon on the front. "Hey look, Russians," it read. "Putin did it."

He might not have given it a second thought were it not for one thing: His company had recently launched an internal security investigation after officials discovered someone had tried to register an unauthorized device into its network. That inquiry eventually led to the discovery of something even more worrisome: the breach of a Texas-based network monitoring company called SolarWinds.

U.S. officials now believe that hackers with Russia's intelligence service, the SVR, found a way to piggyback onto one of SolarWinds' regular software updates and slip undetected into its clients' networks. That means potentially thousands of companies and dozens of government departments and agencies may have been compromised.

President Biden was concerned enough about the attack that he brought it up in his first official call as president on Tuesday with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It is unclear how Putin responded, but Russia has denied involvement in the past.

"We'll be poised to act"

A little over a year ago, the head of U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA, Gen. Paul Nakasone, began to talk openly about America's cyber operations and something he called "defend forward." The strategy is aimed at going toe-to-toe with adversaries in their networks instead of waiting for them to come and hack Americans here at home.

"Defend forward is a DOD strategy that looks outside of the United States," Nakasone told NPR as Cyber Command prepared for the 2020 elections. To impact adversaries, he said, the U.S. was "going to expand our insights of our adversaries. ... We're going to know our adversaries better than they know themselves. ... We're going to harden our defenses and ... we'll be poised to act."

At the time, the decision to talk about American cyber forces seemed like a classic deterrence strategy. Traditionally the NSA's mission was kept secret; Nakasone broke from that partly to assure Americans months before the 2020 elections that Cyber Command was prepared to defend U.S. networks while at the same time making clear to adversaries that U.S. cyber operators were primed.

Then Nakasone went a step further. He revealed in an NPR story large portions of Operation Glowing Symphony, an offensive cyber campaign the U.S. launched against ISIS that went a long way toward hobbling the terrorist organization's media and recruitment operation. If Russia were wondering just how skillful U.S. cyber operators were, Nakasone appeared to be saying, here's a little preview.

"It's a little bit different in cyberspace," Nakasone said at the time, "because you have foes that can come and go very, very quickly. They can buy infrastructure, they can develop their capabilities, they can conduct attacks. And what you have to do, from what I've learned, is you have to be persistent with that, and making sure that whenever they do that type of thing, you're going to be there and you're going to impact them."

In that spirit of low-grade confrontation, a few weeks before Americans cast their ballots in the 2020 election, NSA operators gave their Russian counterparts a little tweak: They sent individualized emails to specific Russian hackers, just to let them know U.S. cyber forces had their eye on them. It was an electronic version, in a sense, of that postcard that went to FireEye's Mandia.

Did Nakasone's discussion of U.S. cyber capabilities inspire Russian hackers to do something epic just to prove they could? Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute, said that while that might have played a small role, Russian cyber forces hardly needed an excuse to try their hand at compromising American networks.

"I think the Russians are emboldened to work against us and come after us for lots of reasons," she said. "And not the least of which could be us saying, 'Hey we're going to, you know, have a secure and safe 2020 election,' that would inspire them to say, 'Oh, no you're not, and while you are focusing on the election, we're actually going to come into your networks.' "

And that's what SolarWinds did — it gave them entree into a roster of networks so they could look around to see what they could find. Even without any prodding from Nakasone, cybersecurity experts say, it was inevitable a supply chain hack such as this would happen.

The next-generation hack

There was a simpler version of this kind of breach back in 2013 when criminal hackers, not nation-states, got into the electronic registers at Target Corp. and stole credit card information. The theft made national news, and, for many Americans, it was an early harbinger of how hacking could affect them directly.

It turns out, the hackers didn't compromise Target's network — that was too hard. Instead, they cracked into the network of the company that serviced Target's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and stole its credentials, which allowed them to roam around Target's system unnoticed.

The HVAC contractor was part of the store's vast supply chain. Experts say we should see the SolarWinds hack as a more sophisticated version of that. Breaking into the Treasury Department is too hard, so the intruders found a comparatively easier mark — a company whose job it is to monitor the very networks that were compromised.

With the SolarWinds breach, hackers have made clear that something doomcasters have been warning about for years has finally arrived. If adversaries pick the right contractor to hack, everyone that company works with is potentially vulnerable, too, said Richard Bejtlich, a former military intelligence officer who is now the principal security strategist at Corelight, a cybersecurity firm.

"If you were one of those organizations that had enough money to say, 'We want to have inventory management, we wanted to have network management, let's go with SolarWinds,' well, suddenly, that's opened you up to a whole new set of problems," he said.

That's why this is called a supply chain hack.

Bejtlich expects that in the coming weeks more companies will come forward and disclose they were part of this hack, too. So far the tally includes not just SolarWinds but also Microsoft and a cybersecurity firm called Malwarebytes. The NSA and U.S. Cyber Command haven't said anything about the attack publicly and declined to comment for this article.

They are part of a roster of intelligence officials still trying to assess the damage. Cyber officials told NPR that the investigation is in its earliest stages, but what they have determined so far is that to launch the attack and not be noticed, the SolarWinds breach had to have been planned long in advance. They said that likely hundreds of Russian software engineers and hackers were involved and that they spent time in the various networks for at least nine months before FireEye and later Microsoft discovered the breach.

"We think they were surprised it worked so well," one source who is helping trace the damage told NPR. He declined to be identified further because he is not authorized to speak about what they are discovering. "We think that once they got into SolarWinds and were inside their clients' network they had trouble deciding where to go next. It was successful beyond their wildest imaginations, and they didn't have enough people to work it all."

Biden has asked his new national security team for an assessment of the SolarWinds attack. He wants to know how it happened, how far it went and how to fix it. These kinds of reviews are standard operating procedure when administrations change hands.

Among the questions officials will try to answer is whether the SolarWinds hack was a straightforward espionage operation or something more sinister. Were the hackers just looking for information, or have they inserted backdoors into systems across the country that could allow them to turn things off, or change information with just a couple of keystrokes?

Another thing investigators would like to know: whether the hackers themselves sent that postcard to FireEye's Mandia.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.