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Microsoft says Russia is behind most nation-state hacking attempts

Alyza Sebenius
Bloomberg News

Washington – Russia-based hackers are responsible for the majority of nation-state attacks on Microsoft customers in recent years, according to new data from company.

Microsoft Corp. has issued 13,000 alerts about nation-state hacking attempts to its customers in the last two years, with 52% of these related to Russian hackers – whose targets have ranged from elections to the Olympics, according to a report published Tuesday. Iran was responsible for a quarter of the alerts while China was responsible for 12%. The remainder of the nation-state activity observed by Microsoft came from North Korea and other countries.

Russian hackers have targeted elections and political organizations in multiple countries, as well as nonprofit groups, professional services and higher education, according to Microsoft. Kremlin-linked hackers also tried to break into 16 sporting and anti-doping organizations on three continents amid doping investigations into Russia athletes.

Iranian hacking has also been prolific, according to the report, and has maintained a focus on American politics. In August 2019 alone, Iranian hackers attacked 241 Microsoft accounts associated with a U.S. presidential campaign, current and former U.S. officials, political journalists and well-known Iranians living abroad. While only four of these attacks were successful, Microsoft anticipates an increase in activity as the U.S. election approaches.

Hackers based in China have "attempted to gain intelligence on organizations associated with the upcoming U.S. presidential election," according to Microsoft. Those hackers have also been active in cyber-attacks related to medical research. Among multiple attempts to hack medical research institutions in the U.S. and Asia, China-based hackers attacked an unnamed U.S. university that was researching a coronavirus vaccine in March.

China is one of 16 nation-state actors that Microsoft has observed targeting customers involved in the global COVID-19 response efforts. Targets of these attacks have included global medical relief and humanitarian aid groups along with government health-care organizations.

China was also a victim of attacks that sought to leverage the pandemic. "China, the United States, and Russia were hit the hardest, but every country in the world saw at least one COVID-19-themed attack, with the volume of successful attacks in outbreak-hit countries increasing as fear and the desire for information grew," the Microsoft report said.