The Russia-based cyber gang Nobelium, which is believed to be responsible for the December 2020 SolarWinds attack, is on the move again, targeting resellers and IT service providers attempting to infiltrate their customers' systems.
Nobelium’s latest wave of activity began in May when the gang began targeting 140 resellers and technology service providers, with 14 being compromised by the threat actors, according to a Microsoft report.
Karl Sigler, Senior Security Research Manager at Trustwave, found it interesting that during this recent spate of attacks Nobelium altered the tactics used against SolarWinds, where the attackers used a known vulnerability to gain initial access. The group has instead resorted to more common tactics such as password spraying and phishing to steal legitimate credentials and gain privileged access.
“It makes sense. Information security is a constant cat and mouse game. It would be even stranger if Nobelium wasn't shifting techniques to avoid detection,” Sigler said on the new tactics being used.
Different Tactics, Same Goal
However, despite the change in attack methodology the gang’s goal remains the same, to initiate a supply-chain-style attack.
“Nobelium continues to optimize how it acquires new victims through a ‘compromise-one-to-compromise-many’ technique. Similar to the SolarWinds attack, Nobelium first compromises a vendor that provides services to the intended victim(s), then leverages that access to compromise the service providers' customers,” said Sigler.
"Trustwave customers should review the Microsoft report and follow all of the guidance provided to make sure that basic best practices, such as extending only the minimum access to users necessary to do their work, implementing multifactor authentication, and monitoring your system and network logs for strange behavior."
The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) also issued an alert on Monday recommending users and system admins read and follow Microsoft’s recommendations.
Who is Nobelium?
Nobelium is the nation-state threat group identified by Trustwave, the federal government and other security firms that attacked SolarWinds and its customers in December 2020.
That attack affected nearly 18,000 organizations as the threat group allegedly pushed a backdoor into the compromised entities during a scheduled software update, subsequently leading to an attack of nine federal agencies along with 100 other entities.
The SolarWinds supply chain attack was uncovered by the security firm FireEye after it had suffered a breach on December 8, 2020, in which several red team penetration tools were stolen. Five days later, FireEye confirmed a SolarWinds supply chain attack was the cause of that breach via a malware-laced update for the SolarWinds Orion IT network monitoring software (affected SolarWinds Orion versions 2019.4 HF 5 and 2020.2 with no hotfix installed, and 2020.2 HF 1). The incident was reportedly the result of a highly sophisticated, targeted, and manual supply chain attack by an outside nation-state.
Once Nobelium gained access to a system it immediately searched for and grabbed any encryption keys, FireEye CEO Kevin Mandia told U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during a hearing on the attack in February.
The committee was told that the attack was part of a multidecade effort on the part of a nation-state attacker, most likely Russia. Microsoft CEO Brad Smith estimated a team of 1,000 people was involved in the operation.
Mandia told the senators that the attackers conducted a practice run using innocuous code in a SolarWinds update in October 2019 and checked to see if the code was passed along to that company’s customers to ensure the plan would work when executed.