IT firm at centre of global hack says fewer than 18,000 customers compromised

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. IT company SolarWinds said on Monday that up to 18,000 of its customers had downloaded a compromised software update which allowed suspected Russian hackers to spy on global businesses and governments unnoticed for almost nine months.

FILE PHOTO: A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The United States issued an emergency warning on Sunday, ordering government users to disconnect SolarWinds software which it said had been compromised by “malicious actors.”

That warning came after Reuters reported suspected Russian hackers had used hijacked SolarWinds software updates to break into multiple American government agencies, including the Treasury and Commerce departments. Moscow denied having any connection to the attacks.

On Monday, people familiar with the hacking campaign said the Department of Homeland Security had also been breached. One of them said that DHS email had been compromised but not the critical network that DHS’ cybersecurity division uses to protect infrastructure.

DHS is a massive bureaucracy responsible for border security, cybersecurity and most recently the secure distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

SolarWinds said in a regulatory disclosure it believed the attack was the work of an “outside nation state” that inserted malicious code into updates of its Orion network management software issued between March and June this year.

“SolarWinds currently believes the actual number of customers that may have had an installation of the Orion products that contained this vulnerability to be fewer than 18,000,” it said.

The company did not respond to requests for comment about the exact number of compromised customers or the extent of any breaches at those organisations.

It said it was not aware of vulnerabilities in any of its other products and it was now investigating with help from U.S. law enforcement and outside cybersecurity experts.

SolarWinds boasts 300,000 customers globally, including the majority of the United States’ Fortune 500 companies and some of the most sensitive parts of the U.S. and British governments – such as the White House, defence departments and both countries’ signals intelligence agencies.

Investigators around the world are now scrambling to find out who was hit.

A British government spokesman said the United Kindgom was not currently aware of any impact from the hack but was still investigating. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Two people familiar with the investigation into the hack told Reuters that any organisation running a compromised version of the Orion software would have had a “backdoor” installed in their computer systems by the attackers.

“After that, it’s just a question of whether the attackers decide to exploit that access further,” said one of the sources.

However initial indications suggest that the hackers were discriminating about who they chose to break into, according to two people familiar with the wave of corporate cybersecurity investigations being launched Monday morning.

“What we see is far fewer than all the possibilities,” said one person. “They are using this like a scalpel.”

FireEye, a prominent cybersecurity company that was breached in connection with the incident, said in a blog post here that other targets included “government, consulting, technology, telecom and extractive entities in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.”

“If it is cyber espionage then it one of the most effective cyber espionage campaigns we’ve seen in quite some time,” said John Hultquist, FireEye’s director of intelligence analysis.

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