A recent network intrusion at the State Department and similar incidents at the White House, the US Postal Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have prompted fresh concerns about the resilience of government networks to withstand emerging cyberthreats.
On Monday, a State Department spokesman confirmed an Associated Press report over the weekend about the department investigating a potential breach of its main unclassified network in September.
"We detected activity of concern several weeks ago," State Department spokesman Jeffrey Rathke said during a scheduled press briefing Monday. The department, coordinating with experts from the US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, has investigated the breach and put in place a response plan, he said.
"We are implementing carefully planned improvements to the security of our main unclassified network, taking advantage of a scheduled [network] outage," Rathke said, apparently referring to the State Department's decision to shutter its unclassified email system temporarily.
The attack on the State Department network appears to be connected to a similar intrusion into an unclassified White House network recently, Rathke said. He did not elaborate on whether that meant the same attackers were responsible for both breaches.
The White House incident prompted temporary system outages and loss of network connectivity for some users at the Executive Office of the President. But hackers did not manage to access any classified network or data, White House officials had maintained.
The State Department incident and the recent string of other intrusions at federal agencies have added to the already heightened concerns caused by the numerous data breaches at major retailers this year.
"The increased frequency and sophistication of cyber-attacks on both public and private entities highlights the need for greater collaboration to improve data security," Rep. Elijah Cumming (D-MD) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday.
The growing number of attacks is unprecedented and poses a "clear and present danger" to the nation's security, according to Cummings, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He asked Kerry in the letter to provide detailed information on the nature and scope of the breach, the types of data exposed in the intrusion, and the number of employees who might have been impacted.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) expressed similar concern over the breach in a press release. He warned that the continued failure to pass cyber security legislation was leaving the country exposed to "persistent and increasingly dangerous attacks."
The number of reported security incidents affecting federal networks rose from 26,942 in 2009 to 46,605 in 2013, McCaul said, quoting figures from the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, told us in an email interview that one problem with many federal networks is that they are not really designed to mitigate the impact of an intrusion. "Federal networks are usually very flat and not engineered with sufficient segmentation and internal gateways to stop the spread of well-designed malware." Often, even a small malware infestation has a good chance of spreading on a federal network, because of a lack of proper controls.
Josh Cannell, malware intelligence analyst at the security vendor Malwarebytes Labs, said the attack on the State Department's unclassified email system highlights the continued interest hackers have in government entities. The apparent fact that the intrusion affected only the unclassified portion of the department's network does not mean that sensitive data cannot be accessed, he said.
"Unclassified systems still contain information that hackers can use," Cannell said. "The email addresses themselves are valuable, for instance, as they could later be used in a spear phishing attack that possibly reopens doors for attackers."