FBI Blames Federal Hacks On Anonymous Campaign

A British suspect is accused of attacking numerous government agencies, including the U.S. Army and NASA.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

November 18, 2013

4 Min Read

Attackers with ties to Anonymous have waged a year-long hacking campaign that's successfully exploited numerous US government systems.

So read an FBI memo, distributed Thursday, which said that the group of attackers gained access to government systems via SQL injection attacks, as well as by exploiting vulnerabilities in outdated versions of the website development platform Adobe ColdFusion, Reuters first reported.

That group of hackers was allegedly responsible for the July 2013 Department of Energy (DOE) data breach. In the wake of that breach, agency officials reported that attackers had exploited vulnerabilities in an outdated and insecure version of Adobe ColdFusion to obtain personal information -- including names, social security numbers, and dates of birth -- for more than 100,000 past and current federal employees, including dependents and contractors. Attackers also obtained 2,800 employees' bank account numbers.

According to the FBI memo, however, the DOE was but one of the government agencies that the attackers successfully breached. Indeed, the bureau said that systems run by the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Sentencing Commission were likewise breached via ColdFusion vulnerabilities, and suggested that many more agencies may have been likewise compromised.


Reuters reported that the FBI memo also mentioned the U.S. Army as one the gang's breach victims. But a bureau spokeswoman, reached via email, said that the FBI memo didn't reference the U.S. Army. She declined further comment either on the memo or the charges announced against Love.


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Related investigations are still underway. "The majority of the intrusions have not yet been made publicly known," according to the bureau's memo. "It is unknown exactly how many systems have been compromised, but it is a widespread problem that should be addressed."

Unnamed US government officials told Reuters that the Adobe ColdFusion hack attacks were linked to the case of Lauri Love, 28, who was arrested last month by the UK's National Crime Agency -- Britain's version of the FBI -- following an international investigation that was spearheaded by the US Army's criminal investigation command.

Love's indictment in New Jersey federal court was announced on October 28 by US attorney Paul Fishman. "According to the indictment, Lauri Love and conspirators hacked into thousands of networks, including many belonging to the United States military and other government agencies," said Fishman in a statement. "As part of their alleged scheme, they stole military data and personal identifying information belonging to servicemen and women. Such conduct endangers the security of our country and is an affront to those who serve."

According to the indictment, Love (aka "nsh," "route," and "peace") operated from the south of England, and worked with three conspirators -- who investigators haven't named -- operating from Australia and Sweden. Their alleged attacks, which began in October 2012, targeted not only the US Army and NASA, but also the US Missile Defense Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Love himself allegedly launched 10 different attacks -- two SQL injection attacks and eight ColdFusion hacks -- that resulted in the theft of information pertaining to more than 5,000 servicemen and servicewomen. "Once inside the compromised networks, Love and his conspirators placed hidden 'shells' or 'back doors' within the networks, which allowed them to return to the compromised computer systems at a later date and steal confidential data," according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said the hackers allegedly attempted to mask their online activities by using VPN proxies and the Tor anonymizing network, as well as each cycling through a range of online handles when communicating via IRC chat rooms.

Love, who hasn't been charged by British authorities, is currently free on bail until February 2014. If convicted of the two counts with which he's been charged -- accessing as well as conspiring to access US government computers without authorization -- he faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or up to twice the gross loss incurred by the government as a result of the attacks.

Some of the attacks ascribed to Love's group, reported Reuters, were publicized by Anonymous supporters as part of Operation Last Resort, which was launched after Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. The Anonymous campaign sought "reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors" involved in Swartz's case. If convicted, of course, Love would find himself at the receiving end of those computer crime laws.

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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