Microsoft Attack Blamed on China Morphs Into Global Crisis

A sophisticated attack on Microsoft Corp.’s widely used business email software is morphing into a global cybersecurity crisis, as hackers race to infect as many victims as possible before companies can secure their computer systems.

The attack, which Microsoft has said started with a Chinese government-backed hacking group, has so far claimed at least 60,000 known victims globally, according to a former senior U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation. Many of them appear to be small or medium-sized businesses caught in a wide net the attackers cast as Microsoft worked to shut down the hack.

The European Banking Authority became one of the latest victims as it said Sunday that access to personal data through emails held on the Microsoft server may have been compromised. Others identified so far include banks and electricity providers, as well as senior citizen homes and an ice cream company, according to Huntress, a Ellicott City, Maryland-based firm that monitors the security of customers, in a blog post Friday.

One U.S. cybersecurity company which asked not to be named said its experts alone were working with at least 50 victims, trying to quickly determine what data the hackers may have taken while also trying to eject them.

The rapidly escalating attack came months after the SolarWinds Corp. breaches by suspected Russian cyberattackers, and drew the concern of U.S. national security officials in part because the latest hackers were able to hit so many victims so quickly. Researchers say in the final phases of the attack, the perpetrators appeared to have automated the process, scooping up tens of thousands of new victims around the world in a matter of days.

Washington is preparing its first major moves in retaliation against foreign intrusions over the next three weeks, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified officials. It plans a series of clandestine actions across Russian networks — intended to send a message to Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services — combined with economic sanctions. President Joe Biden could issue an executive order to shore up federal agencies against Russian hacking, the newspaper reported.

“We are undertaking a whole of government response to assess and address the impact,” a White House official wrote in an email on Saturday. “This is an active threat still developing and we urge network operators to take it very seriously.”

The Chinese hacking group, which Microsoft calls Hafnium, appears to have been breaking into private and government computer networks through the company’s popular Exchange email software for a number of months, initially targeting only a small number of victims, according to Steven Adair, head of the northern Virginia-based Volexity. The cybersecurity company helped Microsoft identify the flaws being used by the hackers for which the software giant issued a fix on Tuesday.

The result is a second cybersecurity crisis coming just months after suspected Russian hackers breached nine federal agencies and at least 100 companies through tampered updates from IT management software maker SolarWinds LLC. Cybersecurity experts that defend the world’s computer systems expressed a growing sense of frustration and exhaustion.

– Bloomberg

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