'Sophisticated Cyberattack' Hits Pacific Northwest National Lab

Energy Department research facility's website down; employees still unable to access email



Pacific Northwest National Labs, a research and development facility operated under contract to the Department of Energy, was attacked during the long holiday weekend and is still struggling to restore IT services.

"Early last Friday, PNNL, and other research organizations became aware we were being targeted by a highly sophisticated cyberattack," a spokesman said. "As a precaution, we immediately shut down most internal network services, including email, SharePoint, the wireless network, voice mail, and access to the Internet, and blocked those trying to contact the Lab by email or connect to the Laboratory’s websites."

Dozens of PNNL staff worked on the problem all weekend, the spokesman said. "When staff returned to work Tuesday morning and booted up their desktops and laptops, they were able to log on to the internal network. However, they did not have access to email [internal or external], SharePoint, or wireless services. Internal email services and some intranet services were restored Monday afternoon. External email was restored Wednesday morning.

The research facility's website was still down at the time of this writing. "Additional services will be restored as the week goes along," the spokesman said. "Full access will only be restored once we are able to thoroughly diagnose what occurred and once we have added a security patch that will repel further attacks of this kind."

The spokesman did not say what the nature of the "sophisticated attack" was. Some observers speculated that the exploit was a phishing attack similar to those launched against the DoE's Oak Ridge laboratory and other entities recently, but a source with knowledge of the PNNL situation said that the attack definitely was not instigated through a phishing attack.

The PNNL spokesman said the research facility does not believe any classified information has been compromised or is in danger of attack. The PNNL staff has "not found any indication of 'exfiltration' of information from our unclassified networks" either, the spokesman said.

PNNL successfully repels more than 4 million attacks on its external network defenses each day, according to the spokesman. "The vast majority of these attacks are simple to detect and defend," he said. "This attack is much more sophisticated."'

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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