Online attackers successfully penetrated the Department of Energy (DOE) network in the middle of January and obtained copies of personally identifiable information (PII) pertaining to several hundred of the agency's employees and contractors.
The agency first detailed the "cybersecurity incident," which affected the network at the agency's headquarters, in a memo circulated to all employees Friday. "We believe several hundred DOE employees' and contractors' PII may have been affected. As individual affected employees are identified, they will be notified and offered assistance on steps they can take to protect themselves from potential identity theft," according to the memo.
The DOE has launched a full-scale investigation into the breach, involving its Joint Cybersecurity Coordination Center, or JC3, which helps the agency track and report on all attacks launched against the agency, as well as the DOE's Office of Health, Safety and Security and Inspector General's office, together with one or more federal law enforcement agencies.
So far, the memo noted, "based on the findings of this investigation, no classified data was compromised."
[ For more on military agencies' security worries, see Uncertain State Of Cyber War. ]
According to Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, the DOE was subjected to a "long-term, intensive campaign" designed to compromise both its headquarters systems, as well as the systems used by its labs, which is where the majority of the agency's most sensitive work takes place. "The first time we saw hard evidence was in 2002 in attacks against Los Alamos," he said via email, referring to the agency's Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The DOE promised to release more details about this breach as they become known, and said that "once the full nature and extent of this incident is known, the Department will implement a full remediation plan," as part of what it said would be "an aggressive effort to reduce the likelihood of these events occurring again."
"These efforts include leveraging the combined expertise and capabilities of the Department's Joint Cybersecurity Coordination Center to address this incident, increasing monitoring across all of the Department's networks and deploying specialized defense tools to protect sensitive assets," according to the memo.
A DOE official, reached by phone, shared a copy of the memo that had been distributed to employees, but said the agency had no further comment on the breach or the investigation, beyond what was already detailed in the memo.
Interestingly, the DOE memo urged all employees "to help minimize impacts and reduce any potential risks" by encrypting all files and emails that contained PII, "including files stored on hard drives or on the shared network." That request suggests that the agency has yet to implement or mandate the use of full-disk encryption tools for all employees and contractors.
"DOE is as good or better than any civilian agency on encryption and sadly they are not very far along at all," said Paller.
Why might attackers have targeted PII for agency employees and contractors? One obvious answer would be to help the attackers design better social engineering attacks, and in particular spear-phishing attacks, of the type that successfully compromised security company RSA in 2011. Such attacks use personalized emails to trick users into opening malicious attachments, which, if not then blocked by information security defenses, can allow attackers to establish a virtual beachhead in the targeted network, and then expand their attack from there to find and steal sensitive data from other systems.
Despite that threat, could this DOE breach have upsides? "The thing that is most interesting to me is the difference between this attack response and nearly every other federal response," said Paller. "Here the top management and the CIO are actively seeking to understand it with a full commitment to fixing the underlying patterns that enabled the attack (that is very rare). The only other government agencies I know [of] that have demonstrated this type of leadership are in Australia."
As a result, the DOE breach may now spur more U.S. federal agencies to improve their cybersecurity posture. "I am really sorry this happened, but it may be catalytic for more rapid improvement of cybersecurity in the U.S.," said Paller. "Given the talent available in the labs, I expect DOE will be an important agent of valuable improvement for the government and critical infrastructure in the U.S."