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Russian Hackers Breached White House Via US State Department

Attackers who recently breached the US State Department compromised an unclassified White House system by sending spearphishing messages from a hijacked State Department email account, officials say.

Attackers compromised an unclassified White House system in October by sending spearphishing messages from a hijacked US State Department email account, US officials say. Though unclassified, the system did include some sensitive communications in the executive office, including President Obama's schedule.

Although officials will not confirm that the Russian government is behind the attack, investigators have said the code contains indications that point to Russian sources. The State Department has known of such actors compromising their unclassified email systems over the past year, but seems to be having trouble permanently ousting them from the network.

“Once an attacker gets into your systems it can be notoriously difficult to get them out, particularly when your network and internal security controls allow the attacker to move around on your network without being noticed," says Dwayne Melancon, CTO of Tripwire. "That appears to be the case here, which could be the result of an outwardly focused security approach. If you assume the enemy is ‘out there’ you stop noticing their activities when they get ‘in here.’"

"Additionally, many organizations lack a baseline understanding of what is ‘normal’ on their internal network and systems," he says, "making it difficult to tell which systems you can trust, which systems you can't and -- more importantly -- how to stop the attack and prevent future compromises."

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The attackers first capitalized on the trust between two government agencies to spearphish into the White House. Then they sidled through the White House network, looking for intriguing data, like the president's schedule.

"Monitoring and alerting on the first indicators of lateral movement can be the difference between detecting an attacker within a few days or a few months," says Greg Foss, senior security research engineer of LogRhythm. "Monitoring endpoints, segmenting networks, laying traps, creating baselines of what is normal and then digging into the ‘abnormal,’ all are effective strategies for reducing the mean- time-to-detect and respond to an intruder.”

In recent years, the go-to assumptions were that Russian hackers were financially motivated criminals and Chinese hackers were directly sponsored by the nation-state, but those patterns are changing. At a Senate hearing Feb. 26, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said cryptically, "I cannot go into detail here, but the Russian cyber threat is more severe than we had previously assessed."

“While Russia and other eastern European countries are generally known for cyber-crime, it might be revealed that this breach was state-sponsored rather than run by a criminal organization," says Dave Pack, director, LogRhythm Labs. "Developing offensive cyber capabilities is a natural progression for most countries to augment their intelligence and espionage capabilities with. The same cyber capabilities employed by the US, China, and other world powers, will be built up and utilized by most developed countries in the coming years. We might be seeing a cyber arms race in development.”

“The White House and all national security agencies should assume that Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and others want to infiltrate U.S. computer networks and hosts with the aim of stealing important information," says Muddu Sudhakar, CEO of Caspida. "We should assume by now that other countries have replicated NSA’s capabilities and have similar organizations that are constantly attacking US interests. We need the next level of cyber defense, which will prove early breach detection proactively and in real time, while operating continuously 24/7. We are in a new age of cyber attacks, and as such, need to drastically improve our security measures.”

"If the White House or the State Dept can't keep our foreign hackers with the infinite resources at their disposal...what chance does the average company have?" says Jeremiah Grossman, founder and iCEO of WhiteHat Security. "Not to mention the everyday person. Secondarily, whatever new legislation the White House or Congress is planning, does it have any chance of preventing this kind of incident from happening again?"

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