State Department Got Mail -- and Hackers
A break-in targeting State Department computers worldwide last summer occurred after a department employee in Asia opened a mysterious e-mail.
(Washington) A break-in targeting State Department computers worldwide
last summer occurred after a department employee in Asia opened a mysterious
e-mail that quietly allowed hackers inside the U.S. government's network.
In the first public account revealing details about the intrusion and
the government's hurried behind-the-scenes response, a senior State Department
official described an elaborate ploy by sophisticated international hackers.
They used a secret break-in technique that exploited a design flaw in
Consumers using the same software remained vulnerable until months afterward.
Donald R. Reid, the senior security coordinator for the Bureau of Diplomatic
Security, also confirmed that a limited amount of U.S. government data
was stolen by the hackers until tripwires severed all the State Department's
Internet connections throughout eastern Asia. The shut-off left U.S. government
offices without Internet access in the tense weeks preceding missile tests
by North Korea.
Reid was scheduled to testify Thursday at a cybersecurity hearing for
a House Homeland Security subcommittee. He was expected to tell lawmakers
an employee in the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific
Affairs -- which coordinates diplomacy in countries including China, the
Koreas and Japan -- opened a rigged e-mail message in late May giving
hackers access to the government's network.
The chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson,
D-Miss., said hackers are no longer considered harmless, bored teenagers.
"These are experienced, sophisticated people who are trying to exploit
our vulnerabilities and gain access to our information," Thompson
Reid was not expected to disclose the identities or nationalities of
the hackers believed to be responsible for the break-ins or to disclose
whether U.S. authorities believe a foreign government was responsible.
The department struggled with the break-ins between May and early July.
The panel's chairman, Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., called cybersecurity
an often-overlooked line of defense. "Since much of our critical
infrastructure is dependent on computers and networks and is interconnected
and interdependent, a cyberattack could disrupt major services and cripple
economic activity," Langevin said.
The mysterious State Department e-mail appeared to be legitimate and
included a Microsoft Word document with material from a congressional
speech related to Asian diplomacy, Reid said. By opening the document,
the employee activated hidden software commands establishing what Reid
described as backdoor communications with the hackers.
The technique exploited a previously unknown design flaw in Microsoft's
Office software, Reid said. State Department officials worked with the
Homeland Security Department and even the FBI to urge Microsoft to develop
quickly a protective software patch, but the company did not offer the
patch until Aug. 8 -- roughly eight weeks after the break-in.
At the time, Microsoft described the software flaw as "a newly discovered,
privately reported vulnerability" but did not suggest any connection
to the U.S. government break-in. It urged consumers to apply the update
immediately. It also recommended that consumers not open or save Microsoft
Office files they receive from sources they don't trust or files they
receive unexpectedly from trusted sources.
The State Department detected its first break-in immediately, Reid said,
and worked to block suspected communications with the hackers. But during
its investigation, it discovered new break-ins at its Washington headquarters
and other offices in eastern Asia, Reid said.
At first, the hackers did not immediately appear to try stealing any
U.S. government data. Authorities quietly monitored the hackers' activity,
then tripwires severed Internet connections in the region after a limited
amount of data was detected being stolen, Reid said.
Reid also complained the State Department's efforts to deal quietly with
the break-in were disrupted by news reports. The Associated Press was
first to reveal the intrusions.
"We were successful here until a newspaper article telegraphed what
we were dealing with," Reid said.