First it was SolarWinds, a reportedly Russian hacking campaign that stretches back almost a year and has felled at least nine US government agencies and countless private companies. Now it’s Hafnium, a Chinese group that’s been attacking a vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange Server to sneak into victims’ email inboxes and beyond. The collective toll of these espionage sprees is still being uncovered. It may never be fully known.
Countries spy on each other, everywhere, all the time. They always have. But the extent and sophistication of Russia’s and China’s latest efforts still manage to shock. And the near-term fallout of both underscores just how tricky it can be to take the full measure of a campaign even after you’ve sniffed it out.
By now you’re probably familiar with the basics of the SolarWinds attack: likely Russian hackers broke into the IT management firm’s networks and altered versions of its Orion network monitoring tool, exposing as many as 18,000 organizations. The actual number of SolarWinds victims is assumed to be much smaller, although security analysts have pegged it in at least the low hundreds so far. And as SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna has eagerly pointed out to anyone who will listen, his was not the only software supply chain company that the Russians hacked in this campaign, implying a much broader ecosystem of victims than anyone has yet accounted for.
“It’s become clear that there’s much more to learn about this incident, its causes, its scope, its scale, and where we go from here,” said Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) at a hearing related to the SolarWinds hack last week. Brandon Wales, acting director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, estimated in an interview with MIT Technology Review this week that it could take up to 18 months for US government systems alone to recover from the hacking spree, to say nothing of the private sector.
That lack of clarity goes double for the Chinese hacking campaign that Microsoft disclosed Tuesday. First spotted by security firm Volexity, a nation-state group that Microsoft calls Hafnium has been using multiple zero-day exploits—which attack previously unknown vulnerabilities in software—to break into Exchange Servers, which manage email clients including Outlook. There, they could surreptitiously read through the email accounts of high-value targets.