Chinese hackers Storm-0558 exploit bug in Microsoft cloud to breach US govt email accounts

The cybersecurity breach

Chinese hackers Storm-0558 exploit bug in Microsoft cloud to breach US govt email accounts

A recent cyber-security incident has sent shockwaves across the digital world. Chinese hackers discovered and exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft's cloud-based email service, leading to unauthorized access to numerous U.S. government employees' email accounts. According to Microsoft,[1] the hacking group responsible for this activity, known as Storm-0558, successfully breached approximately 25 email accounts.

These compromised accounts include those of various government agencies and related consumer accounts linked to individuals associated with these organizations. The depth and breadth of this breach underscore the sophistication and persistence of today's cyber threats, particularly those stemming from well-organized, well-funded hacking groups.

The intrusion was first detected by U.S. government safeguards last month. Upon discovering an irregularity in Microsoft's cloud security, officials immediately contacted Microsoft to identify the source and vulnerability in their cloud service. This intrusion impacted unclassified systems, indicating the extent to which cyber threats can infiltrate and potentially disrupt even secure environments. Among those compromised was the State Department, one of the several federal agencies affected by this serious security breach.

Hackers’ Modus Operandi: Storm-0558’s sophisticated technique

The Chinese hacking group Storm-0558, known by Microsoft as a “well-resourced” adversary, orchestrated a sophisticated infiltration of email accounts. Their primary targets were Outlook Web Access in Exchange Online (OWA) and By forging authentication tokens, the hackers were able to gain unauthorized access to user accounts, effectively bypassing existing security measures.

In this intricate operation, the hackers managed to exploit a token validation issue that allowed them to impersonate Azure AD users and thereby gain unauthorized access to enterprise email accounts. The clandestine nature of this operation ensured that the hackers' malicious activities remained undetected for about a month until customers alerted Microsoft to anomalous mail activity.

According to Charlie Bell, Microsoft's top cybersecurity executive, the group was primarily focused on espionage, gaining access to email systems for intelligence collection. Bell explained:[2]

This type of espionage-motivated adversary seeks to abuse credentials and gain unauthorized access to data residing in sensitive systems.

Ensuing Action: mitigation and investigation

Following the discovery of this security breach, Microsoft stated that the attack had been successfully mitigated and Storm-0558 no longer had access to the compromised accounts. However, the company has not yet confirmed whether any sensitive data was exfiltrated over the month-long period during which the hackers had access.

The U.S. cybersecurity agency CISA announced in an advisory[3] that the attackers had gained access to unclassified email data. Still, the overall impact of this incident remains unknown. During a briefing, a senior FBI official described the month-long intrusion as a “targeted campaign,” declining to confirm the total number of victims or to name the impacted agencies.

Notwithstanding the lack of definitive attribution, a senior CISA official stated that a government-backed actor had exfiltrated a “limited amount” of Exchange Online data. Both CISA and the FBI are now urging any organization that detects anomalous activity in Microsoft 365 to report it promptly.

As cybersecurity breaches continue to pose a significant threat to governments and corporations worldwide, the story of Storm-0558's attack underscores the importance of robust digital security protocols and swift, effective responses to any signs of a breach.

About the author
Gabriel E. Hall
Gabriel E. Hall - Passionate web researcher

Gabriel E. Hall is a passionate malware researcher who has been working for 2-spyware for almost a decade.

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