The final report on NOBELIUM’s unprecedented nation-state attack

By Pooja Parab

This is the final post in a four-part series on the NOBELIUM nation-state cyberattack. In December 2020, Microsoft began sharing details with the world about what became known as the most sophisticated nation-state cyberattack in history. Microsoft’s four-part video series “Decoding NOBELIUM” pulls the curtain back on the NOBELIUM incident and how world-class threat hunters from Microsoft and around the industry came together to take on the most sophisticated nation-state attack in history. In this last post, we’ll reflect on lessons learned as covered in the fourth episode of the docuseries. 

Nation-state attacks are a serious and growing threat that organizations of all sizes face. Their primary objective is to gain strategic advantage for their country, such as by stealing secrets, gathering cyber intelligence, conducting reconnaissance, or disrupting operations. These efforts are typically conducted by state-sponsored actors with significant expertise and funding, making them a particularly challenging adversary to defend against.

NOBELIUM, a Russian-linked group, is perhaps best known for the widespread SolarWinds supply chain breach. The incident was part of an even larger and more advanced campaign that had been quietly underway for more than a year. As details of this attack were uncovered, it became clear that it was the most sophisticated nation-state cyberattack in history.

In the final episode of our “Decoding NOBELIUM” series, we provide an after-action report that explores Microsoft’s findings and discusses lessons learned.

NOBELIUM deployed extensive tactics

Let’s start by reviewing the key stages of the attack.

The intrusion

It’s critical to understand how NOBELIUM achieved penetration into environments. Going beyond the supply chain compromise, this actor also deployed many common-place tactics like password spraying or exploiting the vulnerabilities of unpatched devices to steal credentials and gain access to systems. Ultimately, NOBELIUM leveraged a wide range of techniques to achieve penetration and adapted their toolset to each victim’s unique environment in order to achieve their goals.

The exploitation

Once NOBELIUM had gained entry, they followed the typical pattern for internal reconnaissance: discover the elevated accounts, find out which machines were there, and create a sophisticated map to understand how to reach their targets. They demonstrated extensive knowledge of enterprise environments and cybersecurity systems by evading defenses, masking activities in regular system processes, and hiding malware under many layers of code.

The exfiltration

Armed with an understanding of their target’s environment, NOBELIUM executed their plan—gaining access to their source codes, harvesting emails, or stealing production secrets.

NOBELIUM demonstrated patience and stealth

The NOBELIUM group moved methodically to avoid getting caught. “They were so deliberate and careful about what they did. It wasn’t like a smash and grab, where they came in and just vacuumed up everything and fled,” said Security Analyst Joanne of the Microsoft Digital Security and Resilience (DSR) Security Operations Center (SOC) Hunt Team.

It took time to move undetected through networks, gathering information and gaining access to privileged networks. For example, they disabled organizations’ endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions from being launched upon system startups. NOBELIUM then waited up to a month for computers to be rebooted on a patch day and took advantage of vulnerable machines that hadn’t been patched.

“The adversary showed discipline in siloing all of the technical indicators that would give up their presence,” said John Lambert, General Manager of the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center. “Malware was named different things. It was compiled in different ways. The command and control domains they would use differed per victim. As they moved laterally within a network from machine to machine, NOBELIUM took great pains to clean up after each step.”

Preparing for future nation-state attacks

When adversaries take this much care in hiding their activities, it can take the detection of many seemingly benign activities across different vectors pulled together to highlight one overall technique.

“In order to respond to an attack like NOBELIUM, with its scope and breadth and sophistication, you need to have visibility into various entities across your entire digital state,” explains Sarah Fender, Partner Group Program Manager for Microsoft Sentinel. “You need to have visibility into security data and events relating to users and endpoints, infrastructure, on-premises and in the cloud, and the ability to quickly analyze that data.”

NOBELIUM leveraged users and credentials as a critical vector for intrusion and escalation. Identity-based attacks are on the rise. “Once I can authenticate into your environment, I don’t need malware anymore, so that means monitoring behaviors,” says Roberto, Principal Consultant and Lead Investigator for Microsoft’s Detection and Response Team. “Building a profile for when Roberto’s using his machine, he accesses these 25 resources, and he does these kinds of things and he’s never been in these four countries. If I ever see something that doesn’t fit that pattern, I need to alert on it.” 

Bottom line: ensure you are protecting your identities.

Finally, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that we need to take care of our security teams, especially during a cybersecurity incident. 

“Defender fatigue is a real thing,” says Lambert. “You have to be able to invest in those defenders so that they can surge when they need to. Security, like other professions, is not just a job, it’s also a calling. But it also leads to fatigue and exhaustion if the incident drumbeat is too strong. You have to have reserves and plan for that so that you can support your defenders and rest them in between incidents.”

As we prepare for future attacks, it comes down to joining forces. 

“When I think about what this incident means going forward, it certainly reinforces the need for the world to work together on these threats,” explains Lambert. “No one company sees it all and it is very important, especially with sophisticated threats, to be able to work very quickly with lines of trust established. This is not just about companies working together, it’s also about individuals trusting each other, impacted companies, fellow security industry companies, and government institutions.”

How can you protect your organization and defenders?

Learn more in the final episode of our four-part video series “Decoding NOBELIUM,” where security professionals give insights from the after-action report on NOBELIUM. Thanks for joining us for this series and check out the other posts in the series:

Microsoft is committed to helping organizations stay protected from cyberattacks, whether cybercriminal or nation-state. Consistent with our mission to provide security for all, Microsoft will use our leading threat intelligence and a global team of dedicated cybersecurity defenders to partner across the security industry and help protect our customers and the world. Just some recent examples of Microsoft’s efforts to combat nation-state attacks include:

The investigation of ongoing targeted activity by NOBELIUM against privileged accounts of service providers to gain access to downstream customers.The September 2021 discovery and investigation of a NOBELIUM malware referred to as FoggyWeb.The May 2021 profiling of NOBELIUM’s early-stage toolset of EnvyScout, BoomBox, NativeZone, and VaporRage.Issuing more than 1,600 notifications to more than 40 IT companies alerting them to targeting by several Iranian threat groups (from May through October, those threats were 10 to 13 percent of the total notifications).The seizure of websites operated by NICKEL, a China-based threat actor, and the disruption of ongoing attacks targeting organizations in 29 countries.The investigation of Iran-linked DEV-0343, conducting password spraying focused on United States and Israeli defense technology companies, Persian Gulf ports of entry, and global maritime transportation companies with a business presence in the Middle East.

For immediate support, visit the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) where you can report an issue and get guidance from the latest security reports and Microsoft Security Response Center blog posts.

To learn more about Microsoft Security solutions, visit our website. Bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity.

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By GitaSharma

Last updated on January 24, 2022

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