6 Reasons Hackers Would Want Energy Department Data

In Department of Energy breach, what was driving attackers to steal employee data? Stuxnet revenge is one theory.
4. Hacktivists Promoting A Cause

The Washington Free Beacon story quoted an unnamed "computer forensic specialist," who said that the DOE breach might have been the work of Anonymous. As evidence, the expert pointed to a Jan. 21, 2013, Pastebin post, since deleted, from a relatively new hacking group called Parastoo, which has been demanding that the International Atomic Energy Agency "start an investigation into activities at Israel's secret nuclear facilities."

To draw attention to that request, Parastoo's Pastebin post (later uploaded again) -- which signs off with the Anonymous manifesto -- included what it claimed was "information about one of the USA Department of Energy (DOE) critical servers we have access to." The timing of the upload would seem to correspond with the DOE's recent breach. But the information contained in the post appears to date from 2010, meaning it was likely assembled from previously published information.

Regardless, the recent DOE breach still could have been the work of hacktivists. "Let's suppose the hackers were part of Anonymous," said Sullivan. "In that case, I'd say they were just scanning all .gov sites for weakness, and PII at the DOE is what they found. And that works for Anonymous, as doxing [releasing information on] government employees is what it enjoys doing."

5. Financial Crime Syndicates Seeking Identity Information

Also on the opportunism front, cybercrime gangs -- or black-market resellers -- seeking information that could be used for financial gain might have hacked into the DOE systems, seeking employees' names as well as social security numbers and banking details. That said, trying to nab financial data from a U.S. government agency system seems like a relatively high-risk activity, given that there's arguably much lower-hanging fruit to be had -- and less risk of the FBI pursuing you -- by hacking into systems at private businesses.

Furthermore, Washington Free Press reported that in the DOE breach, "a total of 14 computer servers and 20 workstations at the headquarters were penetrated during the attack," although that information couldn't be verified. Regardless, according to the DOE, the breach apparently resulted in relatively small takings, involving personal information pertaining to just a few hundred employees and contractors. As far as financially motivated cybercrimes -- or hacktivist-organized doxing campaigns -- go, that's a very small haul.

6. Revenge For Stuxnet

There might be a Stuxnet angle to the attacks -- someone could be seeking information about specific department personnel. "From my very dark place, let's suppose the hackers were from Iran. If you Google for 'department of energy tennessee stuxnet,' the top result will be David E. Sanger's NYT piece on Stuxnet," said Sullivan. Notably, Sanger's story quoted unnamed government officials, who said that the U.S. government commissioned Stuxnet as part of a cyber-weapons program.

What's the Tennessee connection? "It's where the DOE had a replica of the equipment used by Natanz. Stuxnet interfered with Natanz. There have also been several assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists," said Sullivan. "So ... perhaps Iran would like to return the favor?"

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Editors' Choice
Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor, Dark Reading
Nate Nelson, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
Nate Nelson, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading