Why the US government’s overreliance on Microsoft is a big problem


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When Microsoft revealed in January that foreign government hackers had once again breached its systems, the news prompted another round of recriminations about the security posture of the world’s largest tech company.

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Despite the angst among policymakers, security experts, and competitors, Microsoft faced no consequences for its latest embarrassing failure. The United States government kept buying and using Microsoft products, and senior officials refused to publicly rebuke the tech giant. It was another reminder of how insulated Microsoft has become from virtually any government accountability, even as the Biden administration vows to make powerful tech firms take more responsibility for America’s cyber defense.

That state of affairs is unlikely to change even in the wake of a new report by the Cyber Safety Review Board (CSRB), a group of government and industry experts, which lambasts Microsoft for failing to prevent one of the worst hacking incidents in the company’s recent history. The report says Microsoft’s “security culture was inadequate and requires an overhaul.”

Microsoft’s almost untouchable position is the result of several intermingling factors. It is by far the US government’s most important technology supplier, powering computers, document drafting, and email conversations everywhere from the Pentagon to the State Department to the FBI. It is a critical partner in the government’s cyber defense initiatives, with almost unparalleled insights about hackers’ activities and sweeping capabilities to disrupt their operations. And its executives and lobbyists have relentlessly marketed the company as a leading force for a digitally safer world.

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These enviable advantages help explain why senior government officials have refused to criticize Microsoft even as Russian and Chinese government-linked hackers have repeatedly breached the company’s computer systems, according to cybersecurity experts, lawmakers, former government officials, and employees of Microsoft’s competitors.

These people—some of whom requested anonymity to candidly discuss the US government and their industry’s undisputed behemoth—argue that the government’s relationship with Microsoft is crippling Washington’s ability to fend off major cyber attacks that jeopardize sensitive data and threaten vital services. To hear them tell it, Microsoft is overdue for oversight.

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A history of breaches and controversy

Microsoft has a long track record of security breaches, but the past few years have been particularly bad for the company.

In 2021, Chinese government hackers discovered and used flaws in Microsoft’s email servers to hack the company’s customers, later releasing the flaws publicly to spark a feeding frenzy of attacks. In 2023, China broke into the email accounts of 22 federal agencies, spying on senior State Department officials and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo ahead of multiple US delegation trips to Beijing. Three months ago, Microsoft revealed that Russian government hackers had used a simple trick to access the emails of some Microsoft senior executives, cyber experts, and lawyers. Last month, the company said that attack also compromised some of its source code and “secrets” shared between employees and customers. On Thursday, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) confirmed that those customers included federal agencies and issued an emergency directive warning agencies whose emails were exposed to look for signs that the Russian hackers were attempting to use login credentials contained in those emails.

These incidents occurred as security experts were increasingly criticizing Microsoft for failing to promptly and adequately fix flaws in its products. As by far the biggest technology provider for the US government, Microsoft vulnerabilities account for the lion’s share of both newly discovered and most widely used software flaws. Many experts say Microsoft is refusing to make the necessary cybersecurity improvements to keep up with evolving challenges.

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Microsoft hasn’t “adapted their level of security investment and their mindset to fit the threat,” says one prominent cyber policy expert. “It’s a huge fuckup by somebody that has the resources and the internal engineering capacity that Microsoft does.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s CSRB endorsed this view in its new report on the 2023 Chinese intrusion, saying Microsoft exhibited “a corporate culture that deprioritized both enterprise security investments and rigorous risk management.” The report also criticized Microsoft for publishing inaccurate information about the possible causes of the latest Chinese intrusion.

The recent breaches reveal Microsoft’s failure to implement basic security defenses, according to multiple experts.

Adam Meyers, senior vice president of intelligence at the security firm CrowdStrike, points to the Russians’ ability to jump from a testing environment to a production environment. “That should never happen,” he says. Another cyber expert who works at a Microsoft competitor highlighted China’s ability to snoop on multiple agencies’ communications through one intrusion, echoing the CSRB report, which criticized Microsoft’s authentication system for allowing broad access with a single sign-in key.

“You don’t hear about these types of breaches coming out of other cloud service providers,” Meyers says.

According to the CSRB report, Microsoft has “not sufficiently prioritized rearchitecting its legacy infrastructure to address the current threat landscape.”

In response to written questions, Microsoft tells WIRED that it’s aggressively improving its security to address recent incidents.

“We are committed to adapting to the evolving threat landscape and partnering across industry and government to defend against these growing and sophisticated global threats,” says Steve Faehl, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s federal security business.

As part of its Secure Future Initiative launched in November, Faehl says, Microsoft has improved its ability to automatically detect and block abuses of employee accounts, begun scanning for more types of sensitive information in network traffic, reduced the access granted by individual authentication keys, and created new authorization requirements for employees seeking to create company accounts.

Microsoft has also redeployed “thousands of engineers” to improve its products and has begun convening senior executives for status updates at least twice weekly, Faehl says.

The new initiative represents Microsoft’s “roadmap and commitments to answer much of what the CSRB report called out as priorities,” Faehl says. Still, Microsoft does not accept that its security culture is broken, as the CSRB report argues. “We very much disagree with this characterization,” Faehl says, “though we do agree that we haven’t been perfect and have work to do.”

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