SolarWinds: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda?

February 17, 2021

The SolarWinds security breach had consequences worldwide. The bad actors, supposed to be Russian operatives, hacked into systems at the Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Justice, and other federal agencies as well as those of some major corporations. The supply-chain attack went on for months until it was finally discovered in December; no one is sure how much information the hackers were able to collect during that time. Not only that, it is suspected they inserted hidden code that will continue to give them access for years to come.

Now ProPublica tells us the government paid big bucks to develop a system that may have stopped it, if only it had been put into place. Writers Peter Elkind and Jack Gillum report that “The U.S. Spent $2.2 Million on a Cybersecurity System that Wasn’t Implemented—and Might Have Stopped a Major Hack.” Oops. We learn:

“The incursion became the latest — and, it appears, by far the worst — in a string of hacks targeting the software supply chain. Cybersecurity experts have voiced concern for years that existing defenses, which focus on attacks against individual end users, fail to spot malware planted in downloads from trusted software suppliers. Such attacks are especially worrisome because of their ability to rapidly distribute malicious computer code to tens of thousands of unwitting customers. This problem spurred development of a new approach, backed by $2.2 million in federal grants and available for free, aimed at providing end-to-end protection for the entire software supply pipeline. Named in-toto (Latin for ‘as a whole’), it is the work of a team of academics led by Justin Cappos, an associate computer science and engineering professor at New York University. … Cappos and his colleagues believe that the in-toto system, if widely deployed, could have blocked or minimized the damage from the SolarWinds attack. But that didn’t happen: The federal government has taken no steps to require its software vendors, such as SolarWinds, to adopt it. Indeed, no government agency has even inquired about it, according to Cappos.”

Other experts also believe in-toto, which is free to use, would have been able to stop the attack in its tracks. Some private companies have embraced the software, including SolarWinds competitor Datadog. That company’s security engineer, in fact, contributed to the tools’ design and implementation. We are not sure what it will take to make the government require its vendors implement in-toto. Another major breach? Two or three? We shall see. See the write-up for more details about supply-chain attacks, the SolarWinds attack specifically, and how in-toto works.

Cynthia Murrell, February 17, 2021


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