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Monday, 14 December 2020 08:03

Attackers hit US Treasury through Microsoft Office 365; SolarWinds opens door to others Featured

Attackers hit US Treasury through Microsoft Office 365; SolarWinds opens door to others Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Microsoft software has once again proved to be the weak link and opened the path for cyber attacks, this time to the US Treasury Department and an entity that deals with Internet and telco policy. The network management software SolarWinds appears to have opened the door for other agencies to be attacked.

Reuters reported that exploiting a vulnerability in Microsoft Office 365 was the route the attackers took to break into the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a part of the US Commerce Department.

The Washington Post later reported that Russian attackers hit the Treasury and also hit FireEye, with the network management software SolarWinds implicated.

The Post reporter who wrote this story is the same person who started the now-discarded theory that Russia was responsible for email leaks to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election.

The source who fed the information to Reuters, very likely an intelligence agency given that the report was written by Chris Bing, who was responsible for many similar stories at his former billet, CyberScoop, also said the intrusion was considered serious enough to merit a meeting of the US National Security Council on Saturday.

The SolarWinds network management system appears to have been compromised at source, with the company issuing a statement on Sunday saying that updates it released between March and June could have been corrupted.

SolarWinds NMS is used by about 400 of the so-called Fortune 500. Its customers include the top telcos, the US military, the US State Department, the NSA and the Office of the President of the US.

NSC spokesman John Ullyot was quoted as saying: “We are taking all necessary steps to identify and remedy any possible issues related to this situation."

As usual, when such stories are published they invariably claim that the attackers are from a foreign government and "sophisticated". This time, Bing went a step higher and cited his sources as describing the attackers as "highly sophisticated".

Some commenters on Twitter attempted to tie the intrusion to the recent sacking of Christopher Krebs, the head of the Department of Homeland Security's Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Others questioned whether there was any connection between the attack and the theft of attack tools from the US cyber security firm FireEye last week.

A third category was inclined to blame the Trump administration, saying that it was a bid to sanitise material that would be damaging to the outgoing president. 

iTWire has contacted Microsoft for comment.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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