SolarWinds hackers stole US sanctions policy data, Microsoft confirms

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The hackers behind last year’s cyber attack on SolarWinds managed to obtain data on the US government’s policy on sanctioning Russian citizens, alongside data on US defence and intelligence policy and COVID-19 research, a report has found.

Microsoft’s annual Digital Defense Report, which was released on Thursday, claims that this information could have been used to gain invaluable insights into US policy.

The Russian state-backed NOBELIUM, which is widely believed to be behind the cyber attack, is also likely to have accessed cyber incident response, threat hunting techniques, assessments of Russian threat actors, Red Team tools, detection signatures, and source codes.

So far, only the data associated with US sanctions has been reportedly confirmed as stolen. People involved in the US government’s investigation into the hack told Reuters that “sanctions” was one of the search terms used by hackers when accessing the classified digital files. However, they didn’t specify whether the sanctions data was in relation to Russian citizens.

Russia is widely-believed to have been behind the December 2020 cyber attack, with the UK and US officially accusing the country’s officials in April 2021.

The allegations had been vehemently denied by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), with director Sergei Naryshkin comparing the claims to “a bad detective novel”.


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Although US president Joe Biden issued further sanctions against the state and expelled 10 diplomats, Russia managed to avoid any further repercussions. The response to the SolarWinds hack has been subject of debate between US and European policy communities, and the ambiguity surrounding it could be further exploited by Russian threat actors in order to get away with cyber attacks, warned Microsoft.

“The US Government is still not sure where the red lines are for cyber operations,” stated the report.

Microsoft also said that last year’s cyber attack had proven to state-backed hackers that “the private sector is critical to the defense of US government networks”.

“Microsoft and FireEye were the public face of incident response during the SolarWinds attack. In the future, NOBELIUM and other groups could move early to handicap high-profile cyber security teams, anticipating that doing so will slow the time to identification and remediation of intrusions against high-value targets,” it stated.

The news comes as SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna told the IT Pro Podcast that the hack had led to the software provider becoming “a better company than we were a year ago”.

“We were a great company a year ago – we are a better company today for the incident,” he said.

Sabina Weston

Having only graduated from City University in 2019, Sabina has already demonstrated her abilities as a keen writer and effective journalist. Currently a content writer for Drapers, Sabina spent a number of years writing for ITPro, specialising in networking and telecommunications, as well as charting the efforts of technology companies to improve their inclusion and diversity strategies, a topic close to her heart.

Sabina has also held a number of editorial roles at Harper's Bazaar, Cube Collective, and HighClouds.