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7/13/2006
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State Department Releases Details Of Computer System Attacks

The attacks started with systems located within U.S. embassies in the East Asia-Pacific region.

The State Department confirmed that attacks last month on some of its computer systems originated in the East Asia-Pacific region, targeting U.S. embassies there, and worked their way toward State's headquarters in Washington. The department hasn't indicated whether it has a specific suspect (or suspects) in mind, but it says it's working with Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Emergency Response Team and the FBI on an investigation.

The systems affected by the hack were unclassified computer systems, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said during a press briefing Wednesday. "There is an ongoing forensic investigation to examine exactly what happened and to try to learn from that, but the initial findings of the investigation are that there was no compromise of sensitive U.S. government information."

The State Department has taken some precautionary steps, including changing some passwords. "Some of the Internet service to some people in some of our embassies and some people here was affected," McCormack said of the attack. "But the system as a whole was up and running throughout this entire time." McCormack added that the compromise was not the result of problems with the department's cybersecurity policies.

The State Department has a less-than-stellar record when it comes to IT security. In March, the White House Office of Management and Budget's annual federal government computer security report card gave the State Department an F grade for fiscal 2005, even worse that its D+ grade for fiscal 2004. The overall grade given to all 24 federal agencies evaluated was a D+.

Reports of this hack into State Department IT systems has raised concerns about data security in the federal government to a whole new level. The federal government has in recent months been plagued by a series of laptop thefts at the Veterans Affairs and Agriculture departments, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service. But these losses would pale in comparison to a network breach that allowed an attacker to access directories with user-privilege information and plant rootkits and other malicious code to facilitate future attacks.

Word of these June attacks on the State Department's systems comes at a particularly delicate time for the department, which has been involved in critical diplomatic negotiations with North Korea following that country's testing of nuclear missiles earlier this month.

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