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Phishing Attack Hits Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The government lab expects to restore Internet access and external email service next week after losing nearly 1 gigabyte of unclassified data.

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters


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The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is investigating a sophisticated phishing attack that forced it to shut down email and Internet access last week.

As of Thursday, external email and Internet service was still not back online at the lab, though employees were once again allowed use of their smartphones, Barbara Penland, a lab spokeswoman, said in an interview. She said the lab expects to restore Internet service and access to external email sometime next week.

The lab--which houses some of the world's most powerful supercomputers and stores classified government data--was hit with a phishing attack on April 7 that was designed specifically to remove information from the network.

"We ended up with an excess of 570 of those emails coming in to different people and we had some folks who clicked on the email," she said. "One or two of them managed to get through into the system."

The lab's IT team tracked and observed the virus for about a week before deciding that shutting down access to the Internet and external email last Friday was the best way to stop it, Penland said.

"This one cleaned up behind itself and it stayed hidden to a large degree and actually wasn't very active until just before we shut the door," she said, adding that it was a virus security researchers are familiar with.

Less than a gigabyte of data was removed from the lab's business and email networks as a result of the attack, which Penland stressed did not touch any of the Lab's classified networks. Those are not connected to the public Internet, "for obvious reasons," she said.

A "tiger team" of external security researchers and members of the lab's internal IT team continue to investigate the virus and clean any devices or PCs that were affected by it, Penland added.

The ORNL is run by the University of Texas' Battelle campus for the Department of Energy and is home to three supercomputers operated by federal agencies. In addition to one the Department of Energy oversees, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation also run supercomputers there.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Contributor, Dark Reading

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

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