Little-known SolarWinds gets scrutiny over hack, stock sales

FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009, file photo shows the United States Chamber of Commerce building in Washington. Elite cyber spies have spent months secretly exploiting SolarWinds software to peer into computer networks, putting many of the company's highest-profile customers in national governments, including the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, and Fortune 500 companies on high alert. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009, file photo shows the United States Chamber of Commerce building in Washington. Elite cyber spies have spent months secretly exploiting SolarWinds software to peer into computer networks, putting many of the company's highest-profile customers in national governments, including the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, and Fortune 500 companies on high alert. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) (AP2009)

Before this week, few people were aware of SolarWinds, a Texas-based software company providing vital computer network monitoring services to major corporations and government agencies worldwide.

But the revelation that elite cyber spies have spent months secretly exploiting SolarWinds' software to peer into computer networks has put many of its highest-profile customers in national governments and Fortune 500 companies on high alert. And it's raising questions about whether company insiders knew of its security vulnerabilities as its biggest investors sold off stock.

Founded in 1999 by two brothers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ahead of the feared turn-of-the-millennium Y2K computer bug, the company’s website says its first product “arrived on the scene to help IT pros quell everyone’s world-ending fears.”

This time, its products are the ones instilling fears. The company on Sunday began alerting about 33,000 of its customers that an “outside nation state” — widely suspected to be Russia — injected malicious code into some updated versions of its premier product, Orion. The ubiquitous software tool, which helps organizations monitor the performance of their computer networks and servers, had become an instrument for spies to steal information undetected.

“They’re not a household name the same way that Microsoft is. That’s because their software sits in the back office," said Rob Oliver, a research analyst at Baird who has followed the company for years. “Workers could have spent their whole career without hearing about SolarWinds. But I guarantee your IT department will know about it.”

Now plenty of other people know about it, too. One of SolarWinds’ customers, the prominent cybersecurity firm FireEye, was the first to detect the cyberespionage operation, and began notifying other victims. Among other revealed spying targets were the U.S. departments of Treasury and Commerce.

But the Trump administration has been silent on what other agencies were breached. And that wasn't sitting well with some members of Congress.

“Stunning,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. He said a Senate Armed Services Committee classified briefing Tuesday “on Russia’s cyberattack left me deeply alarmed, in fact downright scared. Americans deserve to know what’s going on.”