Cyberattacks at federal agencies draw House scrutiny

As more is learned about intrusions reported on government computer systems last year, politicians question adequacy of fixes put in place.
Written by Anne Broache, Contributor
WASHINGTON--As new details emerged about cyberattacks against networks at the State and Commerce departments last year, politicians on Thursday said they're concerned many federal agencies are ill-prepared to fend off such intrusions.

Members of a U.S. House of Representatives cybersecurity subcommittee said they weren't confident that the computer systems at bureaus within the State and Commerce departments were adequately secured and scrubbed of backdoors that could allow cybercrooks to re-enter. They also questioned agency representatives on whether they could truly guarantee that sensitive information hadn't been accessed or copied.

"We don't know who's inside our networks," subcommittee chairman Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) said at an afternoon hearing here. "We don't know what information has been stolen."

Indeed, 21 of 24 major federal agencies had weak or deficient information security controls in place during the last fiscal year, according to audit reports, said Gregory Wilshusen, director of information security issues for the Government Accountability Office.

Pitfalls ranged from failing to replace well-known vendor-supplied passwords on systems to not encrypting sensitive information to not creating adequate audit logs to track activity on their systems, according to a new GAO report (PDF) he summarized at the hearing.

One of the main purposes of the hearing was to allow officials at the State and Commerce departments to give the first complete public accounts of the cyberattacks since news reports brought the incidents to light several months ago.

The State Department troubles began in May, said Donald Reid, senior coordinator for security infrastructure for the agency's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. An employee at an office in the East Asia Pacific region opened an e-mail message that contained what appeared to be a legitimate Microsoft Word document of a congressional speech--but when opened, actually unleashed malicious code that allowed the intruder backdoor access to the State Department's network.

The agency's intrusion detection system "immediately" detected the flaw and later discovered additional breaches on its systems in other Asian outposts and at its Washington headquarters, Reid said. In the process of analyzing that malicious code, analysts also discovered another previously unknown hole in the Windows operating system that lacked a security patch.

Realizing that Microsoft would not be able to issue a fix as speedily as necessary, the department developed a temporary "wrapper" designed to protect the systems from continued exploits, Reid said. All the affected systems were brought back up and running by July, and the department has not encountered further troubles, Reid said. (Microsoft ultimately released the new patch in August.)

Some politicians targeted Reid's assurances that the attacks only affected "unclassified" systems. Because government auditors have determined that the State Department lacks a complete inventory of its computer systems, "how can you be certain your classified networks aren't touching your unclassified networks, and can you really know hackers have only accessed unclassified networks?" Langevin asked. He also suggested that even unclassified networks can contain "sensitive" data.

Also encountering pointed questions from the handful of politicians present Thursday was Dave Jarrell, manager of the Commerce Department's Critical Infrastructure Protection Program.

Jarrell recounted events that transpired beginning in July at his department's Bureau of Industry and Security, which handles the sometimes thorny topic of export controls. After a senior BIS official discovered one morning that he could not log in to his machine, an agency computer security team went on to discover 33 computers that had attempted to establish connections to suspicious Internet protocol addresses originating from Internet servers in China.

Some politicians criticized the bureau for admittedly not knowing exactly how long the attackers were able to gain access to their systems. Jarrell said the agency was "very confident" that the data on existing machines is safe. He blamed the inability to pinpoint the time of the intrusion on faulty audit logs and said the agency was fixing that problem.

Politicians also used the hearing to lash out again at the Department of Homeland Security's persistently lagging cybersecurity efforts. They lamented that the agency had only managed to pull up its own information security grade, as determined by its compliance with federal standards, to slightly above failing this year. (The State and Commerce departments, for their part, both received F's.)

"I'll be honest with you," Langevin said. "I don't know how the department thinks it's going to lead this nation in securing cyberspace when it can't even secure its own networks."

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