MITRE Shares Details on Nation-State Hackers’ Intrusion into Research Network

The MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit organization that operates research and development centers for the U.S. government, has disclosed that sophisticated nation-state hackers recently compromised one of its internal research and development networks.

The intrusion, believed to have been carried out by a Chinese threat actor group known as UNC5221, exploited two zero-day vulnerabilities in Ivanti Connect Secure VPN appliances to gain initial access.

According to MITRE’s technical deep dive into the incident, the attackers first conducted reconnaissance to identify the vulnerable Ivanti appliances.

They then exploited CVE-2023-46805 and CVE-2024-21887, two critical flaws allowing authentication bypass and arbitrary command execution, to breach MITRE’s Networked Experimentation, Research, and Virtualization Environment (NERVE) network. 

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After establishing a foothold, the hackers moved laterally within the VMware environment, capturing at least one administrator account in the process.

They installed webshells and backdoors to maintain persistent access and exfiltrated an undisclosed amount of data from the network.

MITRE’s cybersecurity team detected the intrusion and promptly activated incident response protocols to contain the attack.

The organization confirmed that the NERVE network, which is used for unclassified research and prototyping, is separate from its business and public-facing networks, which remain secure and operational.

While MITRE has not named the suspected Chinese hackers, security firms like Mandiant have observed UNC5221 and other Chinese threat actors exploiting the same Ivanti zero-days in recent months, often using similar post-compromise tactics for lateral movement and data theft.

Experts warn that the breach, while limited in scope, highlights the ongoing risks faced by organizations involved in national security and advanced technology research.

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“The sophistication and nature of the attack underline ongoing risks faced by organizations involved in national security and advanced technological research,” noted Callie Guenther, Senior Manager of Cyber Threat Research at Critical Start.

MITRE is working with federal law enforcement and its sponsors to investigate the incident and identify the perpetrators.

The organization plans to share findings with the cybersecurity community to help prevent similar attacks in the future.

“No organization is immune from this type of cyber attack, not even one that strives to maintain the highest cybersecurity possible,” said Jason Providakes, president and CEO of MITRE.

The incident serves as a stark reminder of the ever-present threat posed by nation-state hackers and the importance of robust cybersecurity measures, even for the most security-conscious organizations.

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Gurubaran is a co-founder of Cyber Security News and GBHackers On Security. He has 10+ years of experience as a Security Consultant, Editor, and Analyst in cybersecurity, technology, and communications.