US and British agencies disclosed on Thursday details of “brute force” methods they say Russian intelligence have used attempting to break into the cloud services of government agencies, energy companies and other organizations.
An advisory released by the US National Security Agency describes attacks by operatives linked to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency.
In a statement, NSA Cybersecurity Director Rob Joyce said the campaign was “likely ongoing, on a global scale.”
Brute force attacks involve the automated spraying of sites with potential passwords until hackers gain access. The advisory urges companies to adopt methods long urged by experts as common-sense cyber hygiene, including the use of multi-factor authentication and mandating strong passwords.
Issued during a devastating wave of ransomware attacks on governments and key infrastructure, the advisory does not disclose specific targets of the campaign or its presumed purpose, saying only that hackers have targeted hundreds of organizations worldwide.
The NSA says GRU-linked operatives have tried to break into networks using Kubernetes, an open-source tool originally developed by Google to manage cloud services, since at least mid-2019 through early this year.
While a “significant amount” of the attempted break-ins targeted organizations using Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud services, the hackers went after other cloud providers and email servers as well, the NSA said.
The US has long accused Russia of using and tolerating cyberattacks for espionage, spreading disinformation, and the disruption of governments and key infrastructure.
The Russian Embassy in Washington on Thursday “strictly” denied the involvement of Russian government agencies in cyberattacks on US government agencies or private companies.
In a statement posted on Facebook, the embassy said, “We hope that the American side will abandon the practice of unfounded accusations and focus on professional work with Russian experts to strengthen international information security.”
Joe Slowik, a threat analyst at the network-monitoring firm Gigamon, said the activity described by NSA on Thursday shows the GRU has further streamlined an already popular technique for breaking into networks.
Slowik said the use of Kubernetes “is certainly a bit unique, although on its own it doesn’t appear worrying.”
John Hultquist, vice president of analysis at the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, characterized the activity described in the advisory as “routine collection against policy makers, diplomats, the military, and the defense industry.”
The FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency joined the advisory, as did the British National Cyber Security Centre.
The GRU has been repeatedly linked by US officials in recent years to a series of hacking incidents.
More recently, the Justice Department announced charges last fall against GRU officers in cyberattacks that targeted a French presidential election, the Winter Olympics in South Korea and American businesses.
Unlike Russia’s foreign intelligence agency SVR, which is blamed for the SolarWinds hacking campaign and is careful not to be detected in its cyber ops, the GRU has carried out the most damaging cyberattacks on record, including two on Ukraine’s power grid and the 2017 NotPetya virus that caused more than $10 billion in damage globally.
GRU operatives have also been involved in the spread of disinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic, US officials have alleged.
The Biden administration in April sanctioned Russia after linking it to election interference and the SolarWinds breach.