The governments said the Russian operations, which allegedly involve planting malware on internet routers and other equipment, could also lay the foundation for future offensive cyberattacks.
A joint statement Monday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre said the main targets include “government and private-sector organizations,” as well as providers of “critical infrastructure” and internet service providers.
“Victims were identified through a coordinated series of actions between U.S. and international partners,” according to a companion technical alert issued by the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (US-CERT). Both nations have “high confidence” in the finding of Russian-sponsored cyber-meddling, which the alert said has been reported by multiple sources since 2015.
Australia also admonished Russia and accused Kremlin-backed hackers of cyberattacks on hundreds of Australian companies last year.
Routers direct data traffic across the internet. US-CERT said the compromised routers can be exploited for “man-in-the-middle” spoofing attacks, in which communications are intercepted by a seemingly trusted device that has actually been infiltrated by an attacker.
“The current state of U.S. network devices — coupled with a Russian government campaign to exploit these devices — threatens the safety, security, and economic well-being of the United States,” the alert stated. An email message seeking comment from the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., received no response.
US-CERT urged affected companies, and public sector organizations and even people who use routers in home offices to take action to harden poorly-secured devices. But its alert cited only one specific product: Cisco’s Smart Install software.
Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said about 400 Australian companies were targeted in the 2017 Russian attacks, but there was no “exploitation of significance.”
“The points which this reinforces for us as a government, and should reinforce for all Australians, is that vigilance is absolutely imperative in terms of cyber security,” Payne told reporters Tuesday.
Australian Cyber Security Minister Angus Taylor said despite the number of organizations affected, there was no indication Australian information had been compromised.
“Commercially available routers were used as a point of entry, demonstrating that every connected device is vulnerable to malicious activity,” Taylor said.
“This attempt by Russia is a sharp reminder that Australian businesses and individuals are constantly targeted by malicious state and non-state actors, and we must maintain rigorous cyber security practices,” he added.
On March 15, US-CERT issued a similar alert saying the FBI and DHS had determined that Russian government “cyber actors” had sought to infiltrate U.S. agencies as well as “organizations in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and critical manufacturing sectors.” It said Russian agents had obtained “remote access” to energy sector networks and obtained information on industrial control systems.
Experts have stressed that the March 15 bulletin did not mean Russia had obtained access to systems that control critical infrastructure such as the power grid. But Russia does have history in this regard, as many security experts blame it for several cyber-sabotage attacks on Ukraine’s power grid.