Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Cyber Operations: Trends and Best Practices for Network Defenders

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Division of Homeland Security (DHS), and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Safety Agency (CISA) assess Russian Overseas Intelligence Assistance (SVR) cyber actors—also recognised as Advanced Persistent Risk 29 (APT 29), the Dukes, CozyBear, and Yttrium—will carry on to seek out intelligence from U.S. and overseas entities by way of cyber exploitation, using a selection of initial exploitation approaches that vary in sophistication, coupled with stealthy intrusion tradecraft inside of compromised networks. The SVR largely targets governing administration networks, feel tank and plan examination organizations, and facts technological know-how providers. On April 15, 2021, the White Home unveiled a statement on the current SolarWinds compromise, attributing the activity to the SVR. For supplemental thorough information and facts on determined vulnerabilities and mitigations, see the Nationwide Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Stability Company (CISA), and FBI Cybersecurity Advisory titled “Russian SVR Targets U.S. and Allied Networks,” produced on April 15, 2021.

The FBI and DHS are offering data on the SVR’s cyber equipment, targets, strategies, and capabilities to help corporations in conducting their have investigations and securing their networks.

Click on here for a PDF version of this report.

Danger Overview

SVR cyber functions have posed a longstanding risk to the United States. Prior to 2018, many non-public cyber safety providers released stories about APT 29 operations to get hold of entry to sufferer networks and steal facts, highlighting the use of personalized tools to improve stealth inside sufferer networks and APT 29 actors’ capacity to move inside sufferer environments undetected.

Starting in 2018, the FBI noticed the SVR shift from using malware on target networks to targeting cloud assets, specially e-mail, to obtain details. The exploitation of Microsoft Office 365 environments pursuing network entry obtained as a result of use of modified SolarWinds software program demonstrates this continuing craze. Concentrating on cloud sources almost certainly minimizes the probability of detection by utilizing compromised accounts or technique misconfigurations to blend in with standard or unmonitored website traffic in an natural environment not properly defended, monitored, or comprehended by target businesses.

SVR Cyber Functions Practices, Procedures, and Procedures

Password Spraying

In one particular 2018 compromise of a significant network, SVR cyber actors applied password spraying to discover a weak password linked with an administrative account. The actors performed the password spraying activity in a “low and slow” way, trying a compact quantity of passwords at rare intervals, probably to keep away from detection. The password spraying applied a substantial selection of IP addresses all situated in the exact same region as the victim, together with those connected with residential, professional, cell, and The Onion Router (TOR) addresses.

The organization unintentionally exempted the compromised administrator’s account from multi-component authentication prerequisites. With obtain to the administrative account, the actors modified permissions of precise e-mail accounts on the network, making it possible for any authenticated network person to examine people accounts.

The actors also utilised the misconfiguration for compromised non-administrative accounts. That misconfiguration enabled logins utilizing legacy solitary-component authentication on equipment which did not guidance multi-element authentication. The FBI suspects this was reached by spoofing consumer agent strings to seem to be older variations of mail shoppers, including Apple’s mail customer and old variations of Microsoft Outlook. Just after logging in as a non-administrative person, the actors utilised the permission alterations utilized by the compromised administrative person to accessibility unique mailboxes of curiosity in the sufferer organization.

While the password sprays have been carried out from a lot of different IP addresses, as soon as the actors obtained entry to an account, that compromised account was frequently only accessed from a one IP handle corresponding to a leased digital personal server (VPS). The FBI noticed minimal overlap concerning the VPSs applied for diverse compromised accounts, and just about every leased server utilised to conduct abide by-on actions was in the similar place as the target group.

During the period of their entry, the actors consistently logged into the administrative account to modify account permissions, such as eradicating their entry to accounts presumed to no extended be of interest, or introducing permissions to supplemental accounts. 


To protect from this strategy, the FBI and DHS advise community operators to abide by best techniques for configuring obtain to cloud computing environments, together with:

  • Mandatory use of an permitted multi-element authentication remedy for all end users from equally on premises and remote locations.
  • Prohibit remote entry to administrative functions and resources from IP addresses and methods not owned by the business.
  • Typical audits of mailbox settings, account permissions, and mail forwarding procedures for evidence of unauthorized modifications.
  • Wherever possible, implement the use of robust passwords and protect against the use of effortlessly guessed or commonly applied passwords by means of complex signifies, particularly for administrative accounts.
  • Consistently evaluation the organization’s password administration plan.
  • Assure the organization’s details technologies (IT) support crew has well-documented regular running methods for password resets of consumer account lockouts.
  • Maintain a standard cadence of safety awareness schooling for all business workers.

Leveraging Zero-Working day Vulnerability

In a individual incident, SVR actors made use of CVE-2019-19781, a zero-day exploit at the time, in opposition to a digital personal network (VPN) appliance to get hold of network entry. Adhering to exploitation of the gadget in a way that exposed person qualifications, the actors recognized and authenticated to techniques on the community working with the exposed qualifications.

The actors worked to establish a foothold on many unique techniques that had been not configured to involve multi-issue authentication and attempted to entry world wide web-primarily based resources in particular parts of the network in line with facts of fascination to a international intelligence support.

Following first discovery, the sufferer attempted to evict the actors. Nevertheless, the victim experienced not discovered the initial place of obtain, and the actors employed the exact VPN appliance vulnerability to regain accessibility. Finally, the initial obtain issue was determined, taken out from the network, and the actors were being evicted. As in the past circumstance, the actors used devoted VPSs positioned in the very same state as the sufferer, most likely to make it show up that the community site visitors was not anomalous with ordinary action.


To protect from this method, the FBI and DHS suggest network defenders make sure endpoint checking answers are configured to discover evidence of lateral motion inside of the network and:

  • Keep track of the community for evidence of encoded PowerShell commands and execution of community scanning tools, this kind of as NMAP.
  • Make sure host dependent anti-virus/endpoint checking methods are enabled and set to warn if checking or reporting is disabled, or if communication is dropped with a host agent for far more than a acceptable total of time.
  • Call for use of multi-variable authentication to obtain interior methods.
  • Right away configure recently-extra devices to the community, including all those utilized for testing or development perform, to observe the organization’s security baseline and integrate into organization checking resources.


In 2020, the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States attributed intrusions perpetrated applying malware recognized as WELLMESS to APT 29. WELLMESS was composed in the Go programming language, and the earlier-recognized exercise appeared to focus on targeting COVID-19 vaccine growth. The FBI’s investigation unveiled that following first compromise of a network—normally by way of an unpatched, publicly-recognized vulnerability—the actors deployed WELLMESS. Once on the community, the actors qualified just about every organization’s vaccine investigate repository and Active Listing servers. These intrusions, which mainly relied on targeting on-premises community assets, were being a departure from historic tradecraft, and possible indicate new means the actors are evolving in the digital setting. Additional facts about the particulars of the malware employed in this intrusion have been previously unveiled and are referenced in the ‘Resources’ area of this document.

Tradecraft Similarities of SolarWinds-enabled Intrusions

In the course of the spring and summer of 2020, making use of modified SolarWinds community checking application as an initial intrusion vector, SVR cyber operators started to grow their obtain to quite a few networks. The SVR’s modification and use of reliable SolarWinds merchandise as an intrusion vector is also a noteworthy departure from the SVR’s historic tradecraft.

The FBI’s original findings show very similar post-infection tradecraft with other SVR-sponsored intrusions, which include how the actors ordered and managed infrastructure made use of in the intrusions. Soon after acquiring obtain to sufferer networks, SVR cyber actors moved by the networks to receive accessibility to e-mail accounts. Targeted accounts at various target companies bundled accounts related with IT staff. The FBI suspects the actors monitored IT team to obtain handy facts about the target networks, decide if victims had detected the intrusions, and evade eviction actions.


Despite the fact that defending a network from a compromise of trusted application is hard, some corporations effectively detected and prevented comply with-on exploitation action from the original malicious SolarWinds software program. This was reached applying a wide variety of checking procedures such as:

  • Auditing log files to establish makes an attempt to access privileged certificates and development of phony detect companies.
  • Deploying application to recognize suspicious habits on devices, which include the execution of encoded PowerShell.
  • Deploying endpoint safety units with the means to observe for behavioral indicators of compromise.
  • Employing readily available public sources to identify credential abuse in just cloud environments.
  • Configuring authentication mechanisms to affirm specific consumer pursuits on systems, such as registering new units.

Although handful of victim corporations ended up ready to determine the first access vector as SolarWinds software package, some were being equipped to correlate distinct alerts to discover unauthorized activity. The FBI and DHS feel individuals indicators, coupled with stronger network segmentation (especially “zero trust” architectures or limited believe in in between identity vendors) and log correlation, can empower community defenders to recognize suspicious exercise demanding supplemental investigation.

Common Tradecraft Observations

SVR cyber operators are capable adversaries. In addition to the techniques described higher than, FBI investigations have disclosed infrastructure utilized in the intrusions is usually obtained using fake identities and cryptocurrencies. VPS infrastructure is often procured from a community of VPS resellers. These false identities are generally supported by low status infrastructure which includes temporary e-mail accounts and non permanent voice in excess of world wide web protocol (VoIP) telephone quantities. Whilst not completely employed by SVR cyber actors, a range of SVR cyber personas use e-mail expert services hosted on cock[.]li or connected domains.

The FBI also notes SVR cyber operators have utilised open up resource or commercially readily available tools repeatedly, like Mimikatz—an open source credential-dumping too—and Cobalt Strike—a commercially offered exploitation device.

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