The New Normal? Unique New Responses to Massive, Global Cyber Theft, Data Breach and Espionage Activities (Part 3 of 3)
In Part I of this series of posts, we broke down the timeline and impact of the massive Syniverse Hack, including the most recent development in the aftermath of the massive five-year-long data breach: U.S. citizens filing multiple lawsuits against Syniverse for exposing their data. Both lawsuits may evolve into a class action suit.
Similarly, in Part II, we took a look at the timeline and impact of the approx. $200 BitMart cryptocurrency theft, including BitMart’s Sheldon Xia decision to immediately compensate the recent heist monies for affected users, creating a new risk mitigation climate for the cryptocurrency marketplace, which to date has only “worked with law enforcement” or “begged and pleaded with the hackers to return the stolen monies” in the aftermath of a heist. The BitMart incident is one of a slew of recent massive heists that also makes clear that while BitMArt CEO Xia’s compensation decision may be new ground for crypto exchanges, enhanced security measures are now a clear precursor to regulation for the legitimacy of this marketplace. BitMart is still creeping back to resuming full exchange operations – and Xia’s recent tweet, as such, is telling.
The deposit and withdrawal function of all tokens will be resumed step by step, along with the recovery progress of security testing and public chain development. No worries, we are marching forward, security will be always the first priority.
— Sheldon Xia (@sheldonbitmart) December 8, 2021
The Microsoft NICKEL Domain Seizures
In the final post of this series, we breakdown a Fortune 100 company’s recent response to a nation-state actors cyber espionage activity, which may represent American tech companies newfound willingness to play the equivalent role for the U.S. government of the pervasive, global non-state actors that execute cyber activity on behalf of nation-states.
In the last few years, Microsoft has filed 24 lawsuits against cybercrime and cyber-espionage groups. According to our friends over at The Record – the lawsuits “allowed the company to take control of domains previously owned by the SolarWinds hackers, COVID-19 scamming operations, APT35 Iranian hackers, the Necurs botnet, and Thallium, a North Korean cyber-espionage group, and Nigerian BEC scammers. Five of these previous legal actions targeted state-sponsored espionage groups, and Microsoft said it has now seized more than 10,000 malicious websites used by cybercriminals and nearly 600 sites used by nation-state actors.”
The most recent headline: Microsoft also seized domains used by Chinese cyber-espionage group Nickel (APT15). Nickel is also known under other names, such as “KE3CHANG,” “APT15,” “Vixen Panda,” “Royal APT” and “Playful Dragon.” On December 6th, according to The Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (DCU):
“Microsoft has disrupted the activities of a China-based hacking group that we call Nickel. In documents that were unsealed today, a federal court in Virginia has granted our request to seize websites Nickel was using to attack organizations in the United States and 28 other countries around the world, enabling us to cut off Nickel’s access to its victims and prevent the websites from being used to execute attacks. We believe these attacks were largely being used for intelligence gathering from government agencies, think tanks, and human rights organizations.”
In a Cyber War, Is Microsoft to the U.S. What Darkside/Black Matter is to Russia? and Nickel is to China?
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Customer Security & Trust added: “Obtaining control of the malicious websites and redirecting traffic from those sites to Microsoft’s secure servers will help us protect existing and future victims while learning more about Nickel’s activities. Our disruption will not prevent Nickel from continuing other hacking activities, but we do believe we have removed a key piece of the infrastructure the group has been relying on for this latest wave of attacks.”
According to a technical report from the
NICKEL used compromised credentials to sign into victims’ Microsoft 365 accounts through normal sign-ins with a browser and the legacy Exchange Web Services (EWS) protocol to review and collect victim emails. MSTIC has observed successful NICKEL sign-ins to compromised accounts through commercial VPN providers as well as from actor-controlled infrastructure.”
“…American high-tech companies may need to consider going it alone: Full Bitskrieg.”
The seizure of domains by Microsoft in response to Chinese espionage activities prompted the realization that, while the U.S. does not have the extra-legal latitudes in waging a cyberwar that Russia and China leverage through native non-state hacker activity, the fact is that U.S. technology companies are in the game – and have a brute force capability of their own. They may not play in the illegality sandbox, but even basic legal-ese in their user agreements and software and cloud services contract gives U.S. IT companies a broad spectrum of legal choices in response to cyber espionage that may not be available to the U.S. Government.
The hope is that U.S. tech company legal efforts are as constant and unrelenting as the non-state actor’s illegal activity. Everyone is trying to hack the U.S. cybersecurity ecosystem – and we mean everyone – and the opposing team is always playing their best game when they suit up to play against the Americans. Kinetic domestic and international terrorists, much to the chagrin of counterterrorism operatives, only need to be right once. In cyber, the unrelenting nature of the activity makes for more of a “finger in a massive, massive dam” analogy for cybersecurity professionals. The result is the cyber threat landscape in which we find ourselves today – which is daunting.
How do corporate IT countermeasures scale their efforts collectively to achieve some of the network effects enjoyed by the other side? Do American tech companies need to join forces to put together a cyber legal framework that is right at the edge of the ‘legal’ in the cyberlaw discipline – while still honoring the rule of law – to meet lawless adversaries on their own turf? American companies tend to be multinational and global with resources that move at the speed of the business climate. What is the leverage internationally shared by American high-tech companies?
The U.S. Government may be on a ‘need to know’ basis at this point in the severity of the threat. Talk of a public-private partnership with the government is great and some great work is certainly being done in the USG, especially at the DHS CISA JCDC. But American high-tech companies may need to consider going it alone with a massive corporate IT Bitskrieg directed at the enemy.
For the full technical report of the Microsoft NICKEL Hack, see NICKEL targeting government organizations across Latin America and Europe – Microsoft Security Blog.
Part II of this series – The BitMart Cryptocurrency Heist
Part I of this series – The Syniverse Hack
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