New “highly sophisticated” cyber attacks on U.S. government labs

Today two government-funded research laboratories and a government contractor in the United States are still recovering from a “highly sophisticated” cyber attack that took place during the July 4 holiday weekend.

The attacks are under investigation, and not many details have been released by investigators.

The first attack happened at the Energy Department’s Jefferson Lab, located in Newport News, VA.  The lab’s website is currently live at www.jlab.org and it appears to be fully restored. We have put in a request for an update with the public affairs manager, but have not heard back yet.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington (PNNL) was the second laboratory attacked. PNNL’s website is still down as of today, but according to Government Computing News (GNC.com), it has restored internal communications and external e-mail. The Department of Homeland Security’s Daily Open Source Infrastructure Report cites a Pacific Northwest spokesman saying the lab’s external computer network averages 4 million unauthorized access attempts each day.

Battelle, a government contractor that manages PNNL, was the third attack over weekend.

“The good news is no classified information has been compromised or is in danger from this attack,” said PNNL spokesman Greg Koller in an interview with Reuters. “At this time, we have not found any indication of ‘exfiltration’ of information from our unclassified networks as well.”

There has been a string of attacks on U.S. government organizations in recent months. Network access was shut down in May after a cyber attack at Lockheed Martin and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is also managed by Battelle. Oak Ridge was attacked via spear-phishing: More than 50 employees clicked on a malicious link in a false e-mail from the human resources department.

“If we don’t act boldly, something really bad is going to happen,” said retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, a former director of central intelligence and ex-head of the Pentagon’s National Security Agency. “Then we’ll over-react.”

General Hayden spoke from a forum on cyber deterrence hosted by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Hayden didn’t give any specifics regarding how the U.S. might “over-react” to a cyber attack. Michael Tiffany, Chief Architect at Recursion Ventures, also spoke. He described how he demonstrated before a group of U.S. intelligence experts how hackers can bring 90 percent of a major U.S. city’s vital systems down without anyone noticing.

“The nature of the way hackers go about things is that the risk of failure is very low,” Tiffany said. “We can tell when we succeed and we get good feedback and our opponents don’t.”

“Today the people who are succeeding at these types of attacks are the ones who are try the hardest. It’s actually not very difficult,” he said.