Solarwinds’ cyber attacker behind current attempted attacks on governments

Microsoft identifies threat actor as NOBELIUM.

The Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) has detected nation-state activity associated with the threat actor tracked as NOBELIUM, attempting to gain access to downstream customers of multiple cloud service providers (CSP), managed service providers (MSP), and other IT services organisations (referred to as “service providers” for the rest of this blog) that have been granted administrative or privileged access by other organisations.

NOBELIUM is the same actor behind the SolarWinds compromise in 2020, and this latest activity shares the hallmarks of the actor’s compromise-one-to-compromise-many approach. Microsoft has notified known victims of these activities through our nation-state notification process and worked with them and other industry partners to expand our investigation, resulting in new insights and disruption of the threat actor throughout stages of this campaign.

The targeted activity has been observed against organisations based in the United States and across Europe since May 2021. MSTIC assesses that NOBELIUM has launched a campaign against these organisations to exploit existing technical trust relationships between the provider organizations and the governments, think tanks, and other companies they serve.

Microsoft has observed NOBELIUM targeting privileged accounts of service providers to move laterally in cloud environments, leveraging the trusted relationships to gain access to downstream customers and enable further attacks or access targeted systems. These attacks are not the result of a product security vulnerability but rather a continuation of NOBELIUM’s use of a diverse and dynamic toolkit that includes sophisticated malware, password sprays, supply chain attacks, token theft, API abuse, and spear phishing to compromise user accounts and leverage the access of those accounts. These attacks have highlighted the need for administrators to adopt strict account security practices and take additional measures to secure their environments.

In the observed supply chain attacks, downstream customers of service providers and other organizations are also being targeted by NOBELIUM. In these provider/customer relationships, customers delegate administrative rights to the provider that enable the provider to manage the customer’s tenants as if they were an administrator within the customer’s organisation.

By stealing credentials and compromising accounts at the service provider level, NOBELIUM can take advantage of several potential vectors, including but not limited to delegated administrative privileges (DAP), and then leverage that access to extend downstream attacks through trusted channels like externally facing VPNs or unique provider-customer solutions that enable network access.

Post-exploitation patterns against downstream targets

A key trait of NOBELIUM’s ongoing activity over the last year has been the abuse of indirect paths and trust relationships to target and gain access to victims of interest for intelligence gain. In the most recent campaign, this has manifested in a compromise-one-to-compromise-many approach—exploiting the service providers’ trust chain to gain broad access to multiple customer tenants for subsequent attacks. NOBELIUM leverages established standard business practices, to target downstream customers across multiple managed tenants.

These delegated administrative privileges are often neither audited for approved use nor disabled by a service provider or downstream customer once use has ended, leaving them active until removed by the administrators. If NOBELIUM has compromised the accounts tied to delegated administrative privileges through other credential-stealing attacks, that access grants actors like NOBELIUM persistence for ongoing campaigns.

In one example intrusion chain observed by MSTIC during this campaign, the actor was observed chaining together artifacts and access across four distinct providers to reach their end target. The example demonstrates the breadth of techniques that the actor leverages to exploit and abuse trust relationships to accomplish their objective.

Observed behaviors and TTPs

Unique indicators (e.g., specific IPs, domains, hashes) have limited value in detecting global NOBELIUM activity because the indicators are mostly compartmented by campaign and specific to the targeted organization. They also regularly obfuscate their attack by shifting infrastructure and maintain very tight operational security around their campaigns. Despite this, the following behaviors and characteristics are common to NOBELIUM intrusions and should be reviewed closely during investigations to help determine if an organization has been affected:

  • NOBELIUM leverages “anonymous” infrastructure, which may include low reputation proxy services, cloud hosting services, and TOR, to authenticate to victims
  • NOBELIUM has been observed leveraging scripted capabilities, including but not limited to RoadTools or AADInternals, to conduct enumeration of Azure AD, which can result in authentication with user agents of scripting environments
  • NOBELIUM has been observed authenticating to accounts from anomalous locations that might trigger impossible travel analytics or fail to pass deployed conditional access policies.
  • NOBELIUM has been observed modifying Azure AD to enable long-term persistence and access to sensitive information. This can include the creation of users, consent of Azure AD applications, granting of roles to users and applications, creation of additional service principal credentials, and more. More information at
  • In one incident, MSTIC observed the use of Azure RunCommand, paired with Azure admin-on-behalf-of (AOBO), as a technique to gain access to virtual machines and shift access from cloud to on-premise.
  • NOBELIUM has demonstrated an ongoing interest in targeting privileged users, including Global Administrators. Security of at-risk organizations is greatly enhanced by prioritizing events that are detected on privileged accounts.
  • NOBELIUM is frequently observed conducting activities consistent with intelligence collection. Routinely monitoring various log sources for anomalies consistent with data exfiltration can serve as an early warning for compromise.
  • Organisations previously targeted by NOBELIUM might experience recurring activity and would benefit from implementing proactive monitoring for new attacks.



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