White House confirms network breach, thwarted attack

Summary:The White House confirms a hacking attempt on an unclassified network, but shows that humans often remain the weak link in the security chain.

Another day, another attempt on the President's networks.

The White House confirmed today it was subject to a cyberattack, that saw one of the most secure networks in the world almost attacked by hackers. 

But the incident, which is thought to have taken place earlier this month, was downplayed by White House staff and described as an "isolated" incident. 

Screen Shot 2012-10-01 at 17.04.12
Image credit: The White House

An unclassified network was affected and quickly locked-down, but there was no evidence to suggest any material had been stolen, despite claims that the attack took place in the White House Military Office, home to the so-called "nuclear football," that carries the codes to the U.S. government's nuclear arsenal.

Described by Conservative publication The Washington Free Beacon, Bill Gertz explained that one U.S. official said the breach was "one of Beijing’s most brazen cyber attacks against the United States." 

Politico fired back with a stealthy quote from another official explaining the situation in much calmer terms. What was the culprit? An email attachment laden with malware, according to the official. The attack used "spear phishing," or 'specific phishing', sent to a particular target masking as someone the recipient may know, in the hope that malware would be installed on the computer allowing in a backdoor to the network. 

But the official claimed that none of the White House's secure networks or classified computers were affected, and that there was no "attempted breach" of a classified system. 

While spear phishing attempts are far from sophisticated, they are on the rise. But while the attack may worry those in Washington, both the Free Beacon and Politico -- despite on both sides of the political divide -- were both clear to state that no classified materials were taken.

As Business Insider notes, while the White House's networks are undeniably secure, unclassified and lower-classification materials will travel on encrypted but lower-end networks, while extremely sensitive information -- just as it would be in the U.K. and other Allied nations -- would be sent through highly-encrypted networks that are closed-circuit to the outside world, or protectively marked, filed on paper and armed to the teeth, perhaps as much as the President's own secret service detail. 

At least the West can sleep soundly tonight knowing that we're not on the edge of (another) Cold War. 

Topics: Security, Government : US, Privacy

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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