After the SolarWinds Hack, We Have No Idea What Cyber Dangers We Face


Months before insurgents breached the Capitol and rampaged through the halls of Congress, a stealthier invader was muscling its way into the computers of government officials, stealing documents, monitoring e-mails, and setting traps for future incursions. Last March—if not before, as a report by the threat-intelligence firm ReversingLabs suggests—a hacking team, believed to be affiliated with Russian intelligence, planted malware in a routine software upgrade from a Texas-based I.T. company called SolarWinds, which provides network-management systems to more than three hundred thousand clients. An estimated eighteen thousand of them downloaded the malware-ridden updates, which were embedded in a SolarWinds product called Orion. Once they did, the hackers were able to roam about customers’ networks, undetected, for at least nine months. “This threat actor has demonstrated sophistication and complex tradecraft in these intrusions,” the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) wrote, in its assessment of the breach. “CISA expects that removing the threat actor from compromised environments will be highly complex and challenging.” CISA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is a SolarWinds client. So is the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Cyber Command.

By now, hacking has become so routine that it’s hardly remarkable. Each morning, I wake up to an e-mail from the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future, listing the hacking groups and targets that its algorithms have uncovered in the previous twenty-four hours. The hackers have cute names, such as Lizard Squad and Emissary Panda. Their targets are a mix of commercial businesses—such as Sony and Lord & Taylor—and government sites, including those of the State Department, the White House, the Air Force, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Most days, I also get an alert from M.S.-ISAC, the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the real-time threat-reporting division of the nonprofit Center for Internet Security, disclosing newly discovered vulnerabilities. There is never a day when there aren’t numerous attacks and multiple software systems…

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