Below is the email that the Department of Energy sent to its employees notifying them that the personal information about several hundred DoE staff and contractors at the department's Washington headquarters (shown above) may have been accessed by hackers.
You'll notice that DoE mention who might have been responsible for the attack and it makes no mention of whether classified information regarding nuclear-anything was accessed.
(Several media accounts have said Chinese hackers were to blame and that the cyber attack didn't access nuclear-related information.)
You can also see that DoE is in the early stages of figuring out the details and full extent of the attack. From the early reports, it sounds like this could have been a spear phishing email attack. If that's the case, an employee at DoE likely got a professional sounding email with a special file attached that contained malware, once the staffer clicked on the file, the hackers were into the department's networks. What would hackers/spies want with staffers' and contractors' email and the info contained within? For one thing, they could use it to crack security safeguards to other networks that contain classified information.
Click here to read an article about DoE's Inspector General's report on the department's cyber security practices from last fall that points out a bunch of cyber vulnerabilities.
Here's the email:
The Department of Energy (DOE) has just confirmed a recent cyber incident that occurred in mid-January which targeted the Headquarters' network and resulted in the unauthorized disclosure of employee and contractor Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
The Department is strongly committed to protecting the integrity of each employee's PII and takes any cyber incident very seriously. The Department's Cybersecurity Team, the Office of Health, Safety and Security and the Inspector General's office are working with federal law enforcement to promptly gather detailed information on the nature and scope of the incident and assess the potential impacts to DOE staff and contractors. Based on the findings of this investigation, no classified data was compromised.
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.
Once the full nature and extent of this incident is known, the Department will implement a full remediation plan. As more specific information is gathered regarding affected employees and contractors, the Department will make further notifications.
The Department is also leading 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.
Cybersecurity is a shared responsibility, and we all play an important role in maintaining the integrity and security of our networks. To help minimize impacts and reduce any potential risks, please keep the following best practices in mind:
Encrypt all files and emails containing PII or sensitive information, including files stored on hard drives or on the shared network.
Do not store or email non-government related PII on DOE network computers.
At a time when senior defense officials are sounding the alarms about the potential for a devastating cyber attack against America's critical infrastructure, the U.S. Department of Energy's inspector general (IG) has found dozens of unaddressed cyber vulnerabilities at key DOE facilities, including ones dealing with nuclear programs.
The good news? The overall number of cyber vulnerabilities at DOE has declined from 56 to 38 since 2011 as a result of better IT security practices. The bad: 22 of those 38 vulnerabilities are brand-new while the remaining 16 went unresolved even after the inspector general noted them in 2011, according to a report released this month. This comes as the department has suffered "nearly 3,000 cyber-related incidents" over the last four years, according to the report.
"Our review of the Offices of the Under Secretary for Nuclear Security, Under Secretary for Science and Under Secretary of Energy organizations identified various control weaknesses related to access controls, vulnerability management, system integrity of web applications, planning for continuity of operations and change control management," reads the report.
The report found that actual, real live people (quaint, right?) could access places they weren't supposed to at six DoE facilities due to inadequate standards in physical controls -- e.g., failing to properly to keep track of who is allowed inside certain facilities. It also found networks and computers at some facilities had weak password protection -- something that could make it easier for the wrong people to log onto DoE computers.
Meanwhile, 1,132 desktop computers (out of 1,952 that were inspected, or 58 percent) had unpatched software holes and dozens of servers were in the same shape. At eight locations, the IG found that twenty-nine web applications dealing with financial, human resources, and "general support" were vulnerable to hacking.
The report goes on to knock DOE for failing to implement known fixes and policies designed to enhance cyber security.
"The cyber security control weaknesses we identified were due, in part, to inadequate development and implementation of security control processes," the report says. "In particular, many sites developed policies and procedures that did not always satisfy Federal or Department security requirements."
Even when security policies were officially in place, some sites failed to follow them. This is exactly the type of problem that government officials constantly lament when they say that most cyber vulnerabilities could be addressed if organizations practiced basic IT "hygiene" -- meaning they need to require strong passwords and frequently update software with security patches.
At the end of the day, these vulnerabilities, if left unchecked, leave the department open to "increased risk of compromise and/or loss, modification and non-availability of the Department's systems and the information residing within them."
The department agreed with the IG's findings (though it did quibble with some of the findings regarding security standards and policies, and said some of the vulnerabilities may involve acceptable levels of risk) and is moving to implement its recommendations for fixing the security holes, according to the report.
While the report detailed numerous vulnerabilites, simply patching them may only result in a permanent game of catch up against hackers, said one cyber security expert.
"It reminded me of the results of most vulnerability assessment reports for any decently sized organization," said Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer of cybersecurity firm, Mandiant. "Vulnerabilities of all kinds are found, involving unpatched systems, code waiting to be exploited, and the like. The next report will look the same."
"It would have been much more useful if DoE had brought a third party to each of its sites to determine 'what intruders are actively exploiting those sites right now', then prioritize incident response and countermeasures to frustrate the adversary," he added. "Instead, I expect another round of trying to fix every problem, while intruders watch and evade any security 'improvements' that DOE applies."
At the time of this posting, DOE officials had not responded to requests for comment.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.