White House Says Unclassified Network Hit In Cyberattack

Mitigation efforts have caused temporary outages and loss of connectivity for some staff, but no computers have been damaged, official says.

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An unclassified portion of the White House network has been hit with what appears to be an ongoing cyberattack.

Efforts to mitigate the threat have resulted in temporary system outages and loss of network connectivity for some users, a National Security Council spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday.

The attacks have not caused any damage to White House computers or systems, though some elements of the unclassified network have been impacted, the official said.

“The temporary outages and loss of connectivity for our users is solely the result of measures we have taken to defend our networks,” the spokeswoman stressed in an emailed statement to Dark Reading.

The Executive Office of the President (EOP) routinely receives alerts about potential cyberthreats against White House systems and discovered the current attack while following through on one such alert.

White House cyber security staff is still assessing the severity of the attack and ways to mitigate it, the statement added. “Certainly a variety of actors find our networks attractive targets and seek access to sensitive government information.”

An internal White House memo to staff members obtained by The Huffington Post noted that EOP component heads and senior directors at the NSC have put in place several interim measures to help employees on high priority tasks to continue work as usual.

Some of the system outages and connectivity issues resulting from the attack have been resolved while others are in the process of being remediated, the memo said.

The White House has not released any details on the nature of the attack or the person or group that might be responsible for it. But some media reports citing unnamed White House sources have claimed that the attacks have been going on for at least two weeks.

This isn’t the first time that the White House has been the target of a cyberattack. In 2012, malicious attackers used a spear phishing attack to gain access to a non-classified system used by the White House Military Office.

In 2009, the main White House website was one of the targets of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack campaign that also targeted the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and several other government networks. A similar DDoS attack temporarily took down the whitehouse.gov website back in 2001.

Cyberattacks against White House networks have invariably tended to be portrayed as significantly hostile actions against the US by unfriendly nations. Many have tended to blame China in particular for such attacks though the actual proof for such claims has been somewhat tenuous.

News of the latest attack is sure to fuel similar speculation especially because it comes just one day after security vendor FireEye’s new report on APT28, a Russian hacker collective that is believed responsible for numerous attacks against government and other websites.

The group is believed engaged in widespread espionage activities and appears to be sponsored by the Russian government, according to FireEye.

Security analysts themselves have in the past cautioned against reading too much into reports of cyberattacks against the White House in the absence of any real information on the nature or scope of the attacks.

“Government networks the world over are on the front lines of a digital conflict, so it’s no surprise the White House has been targeted, as it presents a very rich target,” said Chris Boyd, malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes Lab in emailed comments.

Though no White House systems appear to have been compromised, the attack serves as a reminder of how geopolitical tensions are expressed these days, he said.

John Pescatore, director of emerging security threats at the SANS Institute said reports of the attacks needs to be viewed in a slightly broader context given all that has been happening recently with White House security.

“Given what seems to be a decrease in rigor around physical protection of the White House, I think we do have to be concerned about cyber security protection around White Houses computer systems,” Pescatore said.

“I have no insight into what attacks actually occurred, but the reports make it sound like suspicious activity was detected and dealt with quickly. Those are good things. But that is what the first reports of the fence jumper said as well.” 

About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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