One of the most devastating cyber-attacks to date? The SolarWinds Attack


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It has been a challenge to get my head around the sheer audacity, scale and extent of the SolarWind cyber-attack.

Though my firm and I regularly share updates on recent incidents, it’s been hard to get the timing on this reflection right because of just how fast things have moved and how quickly news of the sheer scale of the attack continues to evolve.

Having had a chance to catch my breath, I thought I’d share some thoughts with my networks.

Massive SolarWinds hack has big businesses on high alert - CNN

SolarWinds is a network management product offering a wide range of tools to manage large networks.

Orion is SolarWinds’ core network management application.

The crux of this cyber attack is as follows: some hackers managed to sneak malware into Orion as it was being compiled, probably back in April. Sneaking it in as the program was compiled meant that it appeared as a legitimate program with authorisation backed by a security certificate.

In layman’s terms, these certificates are very important as they let you know that a particular software is legitimate, and every licensed Microsoft software development house has their own very secure certificate. Hence, these certificates are literally the backbone of trust on the internet, and many companies rely on and provide services for these certificates.

the insertion into the core product means that either a compromised workstation was used in the development pipeline, or that it was an inside job by someone at the company.

Since the malware was inserted during compiling, it appears as a fully legitimate SolarWinds product, using the Orion certificate. Since Orion is a network management tool, it requires root access to all of your servers, workstations, and networking devices so it can deploy changes.

What this means is that whoever controls the malware has full root access to every SolarWinds managed device that uses Orion. Which is – in a network setting – most of an organisation’s devices.

Why The IT Community Should Be Concerned About The SolarWinds Hack - My TechDecisions

This is an unusual attack as the insertion into the core product means that either a compromised workstation was used in the development pipeline, or that it was an inside job by someone at the company.

Over 300,000 of the world’s biggest corporations and network providers rely on SolarWinds and Orion to manage their networks.

The impact is still being understood. But that number alone gives you an idea of the sheer size and audacity of this attack. In my view, and probably without exaggeration, it is one of the most devastating cyberattacks to happen in history.

Ahmed Khanji

Ahmed Khanji

Ahmed Khanji is the CEO of Gridware, a leading cybersecurity consultancy based in Sydney, Australia. An emerging thought leader in cybersecurity, Ahmed is an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and regularly contributes to cybersecurity conversations in Australia. As well as his extensive background as a security advisor to large Australian enterprises, he is a regular keynote speaker and guest lecturer on offensive cybersecurity topics and blockchain.


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