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The FBI Breaks Into Corporate Computers to Remove Malicious Code

Hacker typing on a laptop with binary code in background

The U.S. Justice Department announced a court-authorised operation for The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to copy and remove malicious web shells from hundreds of vulnerable computers in the United States. This action is a part of a government effort to contain the continuing attacks on corporate networks running a tech company’s software.

The FBI is deleting malicious code installed by hackers to take control of a victim’s computer. Hackers have used the code to access vast amounts of private email messages and to launch ransomware attacks. The authority the Justice Department relied on and the way the FBI carried out the operation set important precedents.

Since at least January 2021, hacking groups have been using zero-day exploits. Such a cyber attack targets an unknown software vulnerability to the software vendor or antivirus vendors. The hackers use this access to insert web shells, software that allows them to remotely control the compromised systems and networks. Tens of thousands of email users and organisations have been affected. One result has been a series of ransomware attacks, which encrypt victims’ files and hold the keys to decrypt them for ransom.

The FBI is accessing hundreds of these mail servers in corporate networks. The search warrant allows the FBI to access the web shells, enter the previously discovered password for a web shell, make a copy for evidence, and then delete the web shell. Although, the FBI was not authorised to remove any other malware that hackers might have installed during the breach or otherwise access the contents of the servers.

What makes this case unique is both the scope of the FBI’s actions to remove the web shells and the unprecedented intrusion into privately owned computers without the owners’ consent. The FBI undertook the operation without consent because of the large number of unprotected systems throughout U.S. networks and the urgency of the threat.

The total number of compromised firms remains murky given that the figure is redacted in the court documents, but it could be as many as 68,000 Exchange servers. This would potentially affect millions of email users. New malware attacks on the tech company’s servers continue to surface. The FBI continues to undertake court-authorised action to remove the malicious code.

The shift towards a more active U.S. cybersecurity strategy began with the establishment of the U.S. Cyber Command in 2010. The emphasis at the time remained on deterrence by denial which means making computers harder to hack. This includes using a layered defence, also known as defence in-depth, to make it more difficult, expensive and time-consuming to break into networks.

In a statement, Acting U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Texas said that combatting cyber threats requires partnerships with private sectors and government colleagues. This court-authorised operation shows the U.S. Justice Department’s commitment to using any viable resource to fight cybercriminals. They will continue to do so in coordination with our partners and with the court to combat the threat until it is alleviated. Therefore, they can further protect our citizens from these malicious cyber breaches.

The acting Assistant Director of the FBI’s Cyber Division said that this operation is an example of the FBI’s commitment to combatting cyber threats through their enduring federal and private sector partnerships. Their successful action should serve as a reminder to malicious cyber actors that they will impose risk and consequences for cyber intrusions that threaten the national security and public safety of the American people and our international partners

At the National Cybersecurity Summit, the FBI’s announced its new strategy for countering cyber threats. The strategy is to “impose risk and consequences on cyber adversaries”. This will make it harder for both cybercriminals and foreign governments to use malicious cyber activity to achieve their objectives. The new strategy allows the FBI to play as an indispensable partner to federal counterparts, foreign partners, and private-sector partners.

The FBI will use their role as the lead federal agency with law enforcement and intelligence responsibilities. It will enable their partners to defend networks, attribute malicious activity, impose sanctions for bad behaviour, and take the fight to their adversaries overseas.

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