HAFNIUM Exploiting Microsoft Exchange Server

written by Michael Anderson posted on March 18, 2021

Cyber-attackers have hit well over 30,000 organizations across the US by exploiting vulnerabilities in their in-house Microsoft Exchange Server email software. The latest hacking scheme, attributed to HAFNIUM, a surprisingly aggressive Chinese cyber-espionage unit with the resources to infiltrate thousands of businesses.

HAFNIUM, using 0-day exploits, has exploited four newly-discovered flaws in the Exchange Server email software to gain control over the infected systems. Thousands of victim organizations, including small and medium-sized businesses, hospitals, local governments, towns, cities, and credit unions, have come under attack in the recent past.

What’s the HAFNIUM attack?

Microsoft, the giant tech company whose email software has been the subject of attack, coined the term, HAFNIUM, to refer to a gang of cybercriminals operating out of China but through cloud services right in the US. The US government suspects it’s an espionage group with the blessings of the Chinese government, something that China has denied vehemently.

According to Microsoft, these criminals want to infiltrate information from several industry sectors, including infectious disease research institutions, higher education organizations, law firms, NGOs, policy think tanks, and defense contractors. They accomplish their nefarious tasks via zero-day bugs, which give them access to Microsoft Exchange Servers.

This is possible because the Exchange Servers have loopholes that hackers can exploit to break into and begin to manipulate host systems. The bugs have been dubbed CVE-2021-26855, CVE-2021-26857, CVE-2021-26858, and CVE-2021-27065. Criminals are using them to:

  • Obtain authenticated access to Exchange servers without passwords
  • Upgrade access privileges to the main system account
  • Write or add files, such as malware, to arbitrary locations on the server

HAFNIUM: What it means for your business in Winnipeg, Manitoba

Your business in Winnipeg could be at serious risk of a HAFNIUM attack any time soon. Attackers don’t discriminate — any organization can fall prey to them. As the attacks spread across the US, and still over the borders, you need to be ready, and, most importantly, take measures to prevent the infiltration. A surprise invasion may likely bring your organization to its knees within days.

The criminals exploit loopholes in the Microsoft Exchange Server system to access your emails without the need to crack passwords, or jail-break into the system. Worse still, they can lock you out of your Exchange account, making it impossible for you to send or receive emails from your clients and vendors. This would be disastrous to the continuity of your business.

The hackers could also inject malware, infecting and taking control of your IT systems, harvest information, and even use it to stage a ransomware attack. And there’s little you can do it about since they exploit vulnerabilities in the Exchange Server with 0-day exploits, giving you no chance for mitigation.

HAFNIUM joins the long list of potential cyber threats facing many businesses in Winnipeg today. This makes it even more challenging to run your business without investing in reliable and efficient security systems. The cost of the security systems would be a small price to pay compared to the massive harm these threats may cause to your business.

What’s the way forward?

Following reports that the HAFNIUM hacking scheme had affected tens of thousands of organizations in the US alone, Microsoft responded by releasing emergency security patches to help seal loopholes present in its Exchange Server 2013, 2016, and 2019 versions. But it may have already been too late for the affected businesses.

It would be dangerous for your business in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to rely on security updates from Microsoft to patch any holes in the in-house Exchange Server software. The updates come at regular intervals, but anything can happen in between them, as was the case for the latest HAFNIUM attack. And there’s no assurance the hackers won’t find a way around the patches shortly.

The most reliable way to deal with the rising cybersecurity threat is by turning to the cloud. You won’t have to look further than the very creators of Exchange Server for the cloud-based solution. It would be a matter of shifting from an on-premise Exchange server to a cloud-based Microsoft Office 365, which would provide better security for your emails and IT systems.

Keep in mind that HAFNIUM isn’t your only cyber enemy — countless cybercriminals are burning the midnight oil to work on ways to infiltrate the IT systems of organizations, especially small and medium-sized enterprises with fewer resources to focus on comprehensive cybersecurity solutions. Your business would do well making the move to Microsoft Office 365 to ward off potential attacks from cybergangs.

Benefits of moving to the cloud

If you were still wondering why you should leap from in-house Exchange Server email software that has served you well over the years, the HAFNIUM attacks should jolt you back to reality. HAFNIUM successfully hacking into the email systems of thousands of organizations, including small businesses, means that your business in Winnipeg is no longer safe from cybercriminals.

Here are some important benefits of outsourcing your Exchange server services to managed service providers:

  • Enhanced security: Hosted exchanges have premium security systems to ensure the security of the data of their clients. By partnering with Office 365, you also get to enjoy high-end security without spending an extra cent.
  • Easy to scale: Hosted systems are easy to scale, meaning you can increase or decrease the number of users or services at short notice because you would only need to move to a new tier of the managed services.
  • Cost-effective: Moving to the cloud may require a little sacrifice at the beginning, but eventually becomes cheaper than in-house systems. You pay a flat monthly fee and incur nothing in the name of maintenance and upgrades.
  • Shorter downtimes, or none at all: In case of attacks, such as HAFNIUM, you will be up and running within the shortest time possible because you would only need to retrieve your email data from the cloud from any platform, and continue your business operations.

Your in-house Microsoft Exchange Server email system is good, but not good enough to secure your data from HAFNIUM, and other cyberattacks. Consider moving to Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 for more security. If you are looking for a reliable managed IT, service provider, to learn more about cybersecurity, or to outsource your IT department, please contact us for more details.

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