Hackers working on behalf of the Kremlin appear to have infiltrated several top government agencies in the United States as part of what’s being described as a “huge cyber espionage campaign.” The Treasury Department and the Commerce Department were among the bureaus compromised, according to Reuters, which first reported the breach on Sunday, but officials familiar with the matter expressed concern that the extent of the hack was far greater. By Monday, the Homeland Security Department was also reported to have been a target. “This is a much bigger story than one single agency,” a source familiar with the matter told the outlet.
Russia denied responsibility, calling the report “unfounded” in a statement posted to its U.S. embassy’s Facebook page. But the White House confirmed to the New York Times later Sunday that a foreign government had penetrated U.S. networks, including email systems, and officials familiar with the attack told the Washington Post that Vladimir Putin appeared to be behind it. “This is looking very, very bad,” one person familiar with the matter told the Post.
“This is a big deal, and given what we now know about where breaches happened, I’m expecting the scope to grow as more logs are reviewed,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, told the Post, which identified Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service as the likely culprit. “When an aggressive group like this gets an open sesame to many desirable systems, they are going to use it widely.”
The breach, the most significant in five years, appears to have been a “supply chain attack” on an IT company, SolarWinds, that is widely used across the government. It is said to have triggered alarm in the White House, which convened a National Security Council meeting on Saturday in response. But officials have said little publicly about the matter. The NSA released a notice early last week, before the spy campaign was reported, warning that “Russian state-sponsored malicious cyber actors are exploiting a vulnerability” in the government system, and NSC spokesman John Ullyot said the government is “taking all necessary steps to identify and remedy any possible issues related to this situation.”
The full scope of the hack is not yet clear, but the last breach by SVR in 2014 and 2015 was sweeping, breaking into private companies, universities, and the highest reaches of government, including the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The Obama administration focused on “shoring up” its defenses, Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity coordinator at the time, told the Post, but did not seek to punish Russia. The administration viewed the operation as “information collection, which is what nation states—including the United States—do,” Daniel said.
Worsening the problem has been Donald Trump, who has sided with Putin as he denied targeting the U.S., and resisted his government’s efforts to hold Russia accountable and to enhance security. This latest attack underscores the continued threat of Russia that Joe Biden will inherit when he takes office next month. “If reports are true and state-sponsored hackers successfully snuck malware-riddled software into scores of federal government systems, our country has suffered a massive national security failure that could have ramifications for years to come,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden told CNN. “I fear that the damage is far more significant than currently known.”
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