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7/21/2011
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Attack On PNNL Started At Public Web Servers

Zero-day Flash payload infected visitors to Department of Energy contractor Pacific Northwest National Lab's public-facing Web servers.

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The cyberattack discovered at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) during the Fourth of July holiday weekend used a combination of a Web server vulnerability and a payload that delivered a zero-day Adobe Flash attack, according to officials at the Department of Energy-contracted facility.

PNNL, a research and development facility operated under contract to the Department of Energy, discovered what it described as a "sophisticated" targeted attack on its systems the Friday before the holiday, compelling the organization to temporarily shut down most of its internal network services, including email, SharePoint, its wireless LAN, voicemail, and Internet access. PNNL also blocked internal traffic while investigating and mitigating the attack. The lab says no classified or sensitive information was accessed in the attack.

Now more details are emerging on just how the attackers got into the Richland, Wash.-based lab, which employs around 4,900 people and handles homeland security analysis and research, as well as smart grid and environmental development.

Jerry Johnson, CIO for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said in an interview that the attackers at first infiltrated some of PNNL's public-facing Web servers that contained publicly available information. These servers are considered "low impact" by government security standards, meaning that they require only minimal security under NIST standards.

The attackers exploited an undisclosed bug in the server, and then rigged it with a malicious payload that planted an Adobe Flash zero-day exploit on victims' machines. Johnson declined to elaborate on the Flash bug and exploit.

Another DOE facility, Newport News, Va.-based Thomas Jefferson National Lab, was also hit around the same time frame as PNNL, according to published reports. The attacks have been described as having the earmarks of advanced persistent threat (APT) actors, typically nation-state sponsored and focused on cyber-espionage.

A spokesman for Jefferson Lab says the nature of the attack on that site remains under investigation.

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