The Russian-based hackers behind the SolarWinds cyber attack have launched a new campaign that appears to target government agencies, think tanks and non-governmental organizations, Microsoft said Thursday. Nobelium launched the current attacks after getting access to an email marketing service used by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, according to Microsoft.
“These attacks appear to be a continuation of multiple efforts by Nobelium to target government agencies involved in foreign policy as part of intelligence gathering efforts,” Tom Burt, Microsoft vice president of customer security and trust, wrote in a blog post.
The campaign, which Microsoft called an active incident, targeted more than 3,000 email accounts across 150 organizations, mostly in the United States; however, the targets are in at least 24 countries. At least a quarter of the targeted organizations are said to be involved in things like international development and human rights work. The effort involved sending phishing emails that were made to look legitimate but designed to deliver malicious files. The email campaign has been going on since at least January and has evolved over waves, Microsoft said in a separate blog post.
Nobelium, Burt said, accessed the USAID’s account with Constant Contact, a mass-mailing service. On Wednesday, emails were sent that were meant to look like they were from USAID, including some that read “special alert” and “Donald Trump has published new documents on election fraud”. The link ultimately goes to infrastructure controlled by Nobelium, which delivers a malicious file. Getting the malicious files delivered allows Nobelium persistent access to compromised machines. Microsoft detected the attack through the work of its threat intelligence center in tracking nation-state actors. At this time, Microsoft has does not believe there is a vulnerability with its products or services.
The SolarWinds attack lead to the infiltration of at least nine federal agencies and dozens of companies. Microsoft President Brad Smith called it “the largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen.”