U.S. State Department servers shut down to clean up malware

23 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Fearing Hackers, U.S. State Dept. Has Shut Off Part of Its Email System.

The U.S. The State Department said Friday it was temporarily shutting down Internet service on its unclassified computer network to clean up malware and boost defenses against cyberattacks.

State Department, already beset with allegations that it hasn’t kept a tight enough leash on its officials’ email accounts, shut down some of its unclassified email servers on Friday in order to clear out what sources say was a rash of malware inserted by foreign hackers. The department refused to confirm published reports that Russia’s government is behind the hackers. “As a part of the Department of State’s ongoing effort to ensure the integrity of our unclassified networks against cyber attacks, the Department is implementing improvements to the security of its main unclassified network during a short, planned outage of some internet-linked systems,” department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. “The Department continues to closely monitor and respond to activity of concern on our unclassified network.” In a speech Friday, CIA Director John Brennan told the council on Foreign Relations that U.S. government computer networks are under assault every day from foreign governments, terrorists and hackers of all stripes. He said America’s adversaries are “skilled, agile and determined” and matching them will require focus and imagination — from government and private industry.

The State Department’s unclassified email system was compromised by a suspected state-sponsored hacking campaign, possibly originating in Russia, according to media reports from November. Psaki suggested the inability to automatically retain the emails of all but its most senior official before last month was because the department lacked the technical capability to capture them unless individual employees took action on their own. The agency, the main diplomacy arm of the U.S. government, didn’t disclose how long the email system would be shut down, and a spokeswoman said it’s not releasing additional information beyond its Friday statement.

She said she could not be more specific but that the department hoped to be able to automatically archive all employees’ emails by the end of this year. “Our goal is to apply an archiving system that meets these same requirements to all employee mailboxes by the end of 2016,” she told reporters. “It’s only natural that you’d start with the secretary, which we did in 2013, and that you would progress with other senior department officials.” Officials whose emails are now being automatically archived include the two deputy secretaries of state along with dozens of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of state, Psaki said. Two State Department employees told Daily Mail Online that they couldn’t reach websites from their office computers during the dinner hour on Friday, and confirmed that no emails were going in or out other than interdepartmental messages. The agency said it’s using a team of “dedicated experts,” including security professionals from other agencies and private companies, to shore up security. In October, following an outage covering much of the Executive Office of the President, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters it should ‘not be particularly surprising’ that ‘there are many people around the world who would love to gain greater insight into the activities of the United States government by collecting information from the White House network.’ Many did find it surprising, however, to hear Earnest acknowledge that the computer infrastructure of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is ‘subject to daily cyberattacks, or at least efforts to infiltrate it.’ The FBI, the NSA and the Secret Service were all involved in an investigation, with insiders telling news organizations that – as with Friday’s State Department trouble – Russian hackers were the most likely suspects. One of those methods was criticized earlier this week by the department’s inspector general, who found that only a tiny percentage of emails was being retained that way.

In August 2014 a cybersecurity firm discovered that Russian hackers had stolen 1.2 billion user names and passwords in a series of Internet heists affecting 420,000 websites. And a months-long sustained cyber attack on JP Morgan Chase last summer also originated in Russia, security officials believe, and may have also targeted as many as nine other banks. Saparately, the FBI offered a $3 million reward last month for information leading to the capture of a Russian hacker believed to be behind the electronic theft of $100 million from American bank accounts.

While Friday’s revelation does not necessarily mean that those messages were not retained in State Department servers, it suggests they were not automatically archived. Evgeniy Bogachev is accused of deploying a ‘botnet’ – a hijacked super-network of personal computers controlled remotely without the owners’ knowledge – by spreading malicious software through spam emails. The FBI described Bogachev’s technique last year as ‘an extremely sophisticated type of malware designed specifically to steal banking and other credentials from the computers it infects.’ Kessler ordered State to begin producing records by April 3 and then on a rolling basis every two weeks, with a “final full and complete production of records” by Aug. 1.

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