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China-Linked Hackers Exploited SolarWinds Flaw in U.S. Government Attack: Report

Hackers believed to be from China have exploited a vulnerability in a SolarWinds product as part of a campaign targeting at least one U.S. government agency, Reuters reported on Tuesday.

In late December, a few weeks after it came to light that Texas-based IT management solutions provider SolarWinds was targeted in a sophisticated supply chain attack, researchers from several organizations revealed that one of the pieces of malware they had analyzed, dubbed Supernova, had apparently been used by a second group that was not related to the supply chain attack.

The supply chain attack, which has been linked to Russian threat actors, involved a breach of SolarWinds systems and the delivery of malware through updates for the company’s Orion monitoring product. These updates were delivered to thousands of SolarWinds customers, and a few hundred organizations that were of interest to the attackers also received other payloads that may have given the hackers deep access to their systems.

In the case of Supernova, however, the attackers apparently did not gain access to SolarWinds systems. Instead, they exploited a zero-day vulnerability in the Orion platform and delivered the Supernova malware only after they gained access to the targeted networks. SolarWinds patched the vulnerability involved in the Supernova attack in December. The flaw, tracked as CVE-2020-10148, has been described as an authentication bypass issue that allows remote command execution.

Continuous Updates: Everything You Need to Know About the SolarWinds Attack

Reuters learned from people with knowledge of the investigation into Supernova that the infrastructure and tools used in the attack provided a link to cyberspies believed to be backed by the Chinese government.

SolarWinds told Reuters that it’s only aware of a single customer being targeted with the Supernova malware, but it did not name the customer and said it could not conclusively determine who was behind the attack.

Reuters reported that one victim of the Supernova attack was the National Finance Center (NFC), an agency inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture that reportedly handles payroll for several government organizations, including the State Department, FBI, Treasury Department, and the DHS.

The USDA initially confirmed being affected by the “SolarWinds Orion code compromise” and said all impacted customers had been notified — this could refer to the Russia-linked attack — but then said the NFC was not hacked, without providing clarifications.

The Chinese government has denied being responsible for the attack.

While SolarWinds enabled hackers to gain access to the systems of many organizations through the supply chain attack, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reported recently that many of the entities targeted by this threat actor actually had no direct link to SolarWinds — roughly 30% of identified victims did not use the company’s products.

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Related: More Cybersecurity Firms Confirm Being Hit by SolarWinds Hack

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.