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Hackers hit White House staffer’s Gmail account, raises security concerns by leaking sensitive emails

Source: Twitter

Is this a genuine scan Michelle Obama’s passport that has been published on the internet?

DC Leaks, a site which has made the headlines in recent months by publishing the leaked email archives of high profile figures including billionaire George Soros and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, has seemingly struck gold again – compromising the personal Gmail account of part-time White House worker Ian Mellul.

Why should that make headlines?

Well, Mellul has been actively working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be the next US President, and has organised travel and events for – amongst others – First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.

In one of the leaked emails there are 24 photographs of passports, including what appears to be Michelle Obama’s passport, revealing her passport number, date of birth and other information.

Now, because Mrs Obama is such a high profile figure it’s not as though it’s any mystery what her date and place of birth is… but it’s a vivid depiction of just how much harm could be caused if a hacker breaks into an email account.

Other documents released by DC Leaks show PowerPoint presentations outlining past trips by the Vice President, describing his planned route, who he will be meeting, and details of who we will be travelling with.

The big question on my mind is why is such potentially sensitive information about VIPs being glibly emailed via a free webmail service like Gmail?

You would like to think that anyone working in close proximity to the First Lady, the Vice President, and the potential next President of the United States, would be instructed to only use secure communications under the control of the White House’s IT security team, encrypt sensitive conversations, and have their accounts hardened with technology such as two-step verification.

Quite how this Gmail account was hacked is currently a mystery, but it wouldn’t be a huge shock if it was determined that its owner was duped by a phishing email or made the classic mistake of reusing a password that they use elsewhere on the net.

Users of Gmail – whether working for the White House or not – should enable two-step verification and check that their accounts are not forwarding messages to another account without approval.

It is also sensible to check that your Gmail account has not been set up to delegate access for someone else to read your emails on your behalf.

But really, when it comes down to it, your IT department probably wouldn’t be happy seeing you using your personal Gmail account for work.

Some have speculated that DC Leaks might have links to Russian intelligence agencies, but as yet we seem to be no closer to confidently identifying who is taking such an interest in emails sent by White House staff.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.

5 Comments

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  • She's smiling which makes me suspect it's a fake. You're not allowed to smile in a European Union passport photo anyway. Surely the same rule applies in the USA?

  • After nearly 3 decades as an engineer for DoD I retired. It was obvious to me I was being retaliated against for turning in a Security Violation of other engineers sharing passwords on a secured network. But on the in-house network was something even more disturbing. Engineers would request a second monitor with the excuse of using it for work. But it was not unusual to walk by and see the second monitor always opened displaying their Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and assorted personal email accounts. Even though they could use a smartphone (BYOD) to track and view their personal email, some would avoid the added cost of data usage with a smart phone. This a government network, government computers and during work hours, I cannot justify using equipment and services paid for by taxpayers money for personal purposes. The justification is that all email and it's attachments are scanned. Zero-day malware is still a risk. Approved laptops to allow working for home, in all the time I was there, were never recalled for updates for Zero-day issues.

  • If it were true, people, use your personal email for, you guessed right, personal correspondences only.

    I've seen it go the other way, were people use their work email used for everything under the sun; regardless of what IT policy dictates…

    Keep the two separate. Simple.