Russia was behind 58% of all state-sponsored hacking in the last year, Microsoft reveals, with China responsible for less than 10%

  • Russia often targeted government agencies and think tanks in the United States 
  • Hackers in Russia also targeted Ukraine, Britain, and European NATO members
  • China did under 10 per cent of hacks but was successful 44 per cent of the time 

Russia was behind 58 percent of all state-sponsored hacking in the last year, Microsoft has revealed, with China responsible for less than 10 percent. 

Russia mostly targeted government agencies and think tanks in the U.S., followed by Ukraine, Britain and European NATO members, the company said.

The devastating effectiveness of the long-undetected SolarWinds hack – it mainly breached information technology businesses including Microsoft – also boosted Russian state-backed hackers’ success rate to 32 percent in the year ending June 30, compared with 21 percent in the preceding 12 months.

China, meanwhile, accounted for fewer than 1 in 10 of the state-backed hacking attempts Microsoft detected but was successful 44 percent of the time in breaking into targeted networks, Microsoft said in its second annual Digital Defense Report, which covers July 2020 through June 2021.

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Russia was behind 58 per cent of all state-sponsored hacking in the last year, Microsoft has revealed, with China responsible for less than 10 per cent

‘Russian nation-state actors are increasingly targeting government agencies for intelligence gathering, which jumped from 3% of their targets a year ago to 53% – largely agencies involved in foreign policy, national security or defense,’ Tom Burt , Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Customer Security & Trust, wrote in the report. 

While Russia’s prolific state-sponsored hacking is well known, Microsoft’s report offers unusually specific detail on how it stacks up against that by other U.S. adversaries.

The report also cited ransomware attacks as a serious and growing plague, with the United States by far the most targeted country, hit by more than triple the attacks of the next most targeted nation

The report also cited ransomware attacks as a serious and growing plague, with the United States by far the most targeted country, hit by more than triple the attacks of the next most targeted nation. 

Ransomware attacks are criminal and financially motivated.

By contrast, state-backed hacking is chiefly about intelligence gathering – whether for national security or commercial or strategic advantage – and thus generally tolerated by governments, with US cyber operators among the most skilled. 

The report by Microsoft, which works closely with Washington government agencies, does not address US government hacking.

The SolarWinds hack was such an embarrassment to the US government, however, that some Washington lawmakers demanded some sort of retaliation. 

President Joe Biden has had a difficult time drawing a red line for what cyberactivity is permissible

President Joe Biden has had a difficult time drawing a red line for what cyberactivity is permissible. 

He has issued vague warnings to President Vladimir Putin to get him to crack down on ransomware criminals, but several top administration cybersecurity officials said this week that they have seen no evidence of that.

Overall, nation-state hacking has about a 10 – 20 percent success rate, said Cristin Goodwin, who heads Microsoft’s Digital Security Unit, which is focused on nation-state actors. 

‘It’s something that’s really important for us to try to stay ahead of – and keep driving that compromised number down – because the lower it gets, the better we’re doing,’ Goodwin said.

Goodwin finds China’s ‘geopolitical goals’ in its recent cyberespionage especially notable, including targeting foreign ministries in Central and South American countries where it is making Belt-and-Road-Initiative infrastructure investments and universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong where resistance to Beijing’s regional ambitions is strong. 

Biden has issued vague warnings to President Vladimir Putin to get him to crack down on ransomware criminals, but several top administration cybersecurity officials said this week that they have seen no evidence of that

Pentagon

Treasury

FBI 

Department of State 

Department of Homeland Security 

Commerce Department

National Institutes of Health

Department of Energy

National Nuclear Security Administration 

Los Alamos National Laboratory 

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Office of Secure Transportation 

The findings further belie as obsolete any conventional wisdom that Chinese cyber spies’ interests are limited to pilfering intellectual property.

Russian hack attempts were up from 52 per cent in the 2019-20 period as a share of global cyber-intrusion bids detected by the ‘nation-state notification service’ that Microsoft employs to alert its customers. 

For the year ending June 30, North Korea was second as country of origin at 23 per cent, up from less than 11 percent previously. China dipped to eight percent from 12 percent. 

But attempt volume and efficacy are different matters. North Korea’s failure rate on spear-phishing – targeting individuals, usually with booby-trapped emails – was 94 per cent in the past year, Microsoft found.

Microsoft noted that other large volume attacks are coming from North Korea and Iran, with South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam all active, but with less volume. 

Only four percent of all state-backed hacking that Microsoft detected targeted critical infrastructure, the Redmond, Washington-based company said, with Russian agents far less interested in it than Chinese or Iranian cyber-operatives.

After the SolarWinds hack was discovered in December, the Russians transitioned back to focus mostly on government agencies involved in foreign policy, defense and national security, followed by think tanks then health care, where they targeted organizations developing and testing Covid-19 vaccines and treatments in the United States, Australia, Canada, Israel, India and Japan.

Only four per cent of all state-backed hacking that Microsoft detected targeted critical infrastructure, the Redmond, Washington-based company said, with Russian agents far less interested in it than Chinese or Iranian cyber-operatives

In the report, Microsoft said Russian state hackers’ recent greater efficacy ‘could portend more high-impact compromises in the year ahead.’ 

However, Burt said the U.S. government has ‘taken unprecedented steps’ to address cybersecurity, including President Biden’s executive order announced in May. 

Accounting for more 92 percent of the detected Russian activity was the elite hacking team in Russia´s SVR foreign intelligence agency best known as Cozy Bear.

Cozy Bear, which Microsoft calls Nobelium, was behind the SolarWinds hack, which went undetected for most of 2020 and whose discovery badly embarrassed Washington. 

Among badly compromised U.S. government agencies was the Department of Justice, from which the Russian cyber spies exfiltrated 80 percent of the email accounts used by the US attorneys’ offices in New York.

Microsoft’s nation-state notifications, of which about 7,500 were issued globally in the period covered by the report, are by no means exhaustive. They only reflect what Microsoft detects. 

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