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Russia blamed for hacking Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff email system

Russia is being accused of launching a “sophisticated” attack against the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff email system, according to a report published overnight be NBC News.

The attack is said to have taken place around July 25th, and according to a CBS News report – the Joint Staff’s unclassified email system remains offline over a week later as severe restrictions have been put in place, disrupting the work of some 4000 personnel.

The classified network used by the Joint Chiefs is said to not be affected.

If CBS News’s report is accurate, sources are claiming that the attack was a “new sophisticated intrusion” that could “only be mounted by a state actor”.

A typical attack would have seen workers targeted via an email campaign that either tricked them into launching a malicious attachment, or visiting a website, that installed further malware onto victim computers.

Running up-to-date anti-virus software and keeping patches for software such as Adobe Flash, Adobe PDF Reader, Java and Silverlight up-to-date can reduce the chances of such an attack succeeding – but there is always the possibility that the attackers might have used a zero-day vulnerability for which there is no patch yet available.

Once a PC is infected, the hackers might be able to remotely access files on the computer, as well as steal passwords, log keystrokes and even see what is happening on the victims’ screen or via their webcams.

Furthermore, if the malicious software is able to create a beachhead on a targeted computer, it can then use that as a springboard for further infections and deeper infiltration into the network.

According to a report in The Daily Beast, the attack is being linked to previous attacks that hit the White House and State Department last year, that saw some of President Obama’s unclassified emails compromised.

Those attacks have been connected to a cybercrime operation known as “Pawn Storm”, that has seen government, defence contractors and media agencies in the United States and Europe targeted with spear-phishing emails and poisoned watering-hole websites.

Just last month, Java received a critical security update designed to patch a vulnerability that the Pawn Storm hacking gang were exploiting in the wild.

We don’t know yet whether the attack against the Joint Chiefs of Staff email system involved the exploitation of a Java vulnerability that hadn’t yet been patched by network admins, but it certainly sounds as if it’s one possibility that needs to be investigated.

Some reports have reported that official (but unnamed) sources have linked the security breach to Russia, although no-one appears to be willing yet to suggest that the attack was sanctioned by the Russian government rather than the work of individual hackers.

I would certainly recommend exercising caution before pointing a finger of blame in any particular direction, or even to a particular country. Attributing internet attacks is, as we have mentioned before, notoriously difficult as it is possible for hackers to leapfrog across the internet, bouncing their attacks between multiple computers to disguise their true location.

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.

4 Comments

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  • Would it not be prudent for an entity the size of the United States Government, given the track record of recent breaches, to just simply start limiting access to the internet to only “business critical” destinations for the majority of their personnel? Would it also not be prudent to not only reduce the attack surface but also reduce the potential number of attackers by blocking entire regions for most systems? Is that not a no brainer? And queue the statements about brains and government please……

    I realize there is always more to what is in the news stories but Phishing is hardly sophisticated anymore but has proven to be the most effective. We have had several people fall victim to Phishing email only to have our defenses in place block access to the sites containing the malware, have our personnel alerted to the threat and respond accordingly with some additional education for the users.

  • It may be worth mentioning that the computers involved all would have required two factor authentication (using DoD common access cards), pointing out the limitations of that. While useful, it addresses only one attack method, one that probably is not the most important.

  • I have 30 years experience in network administration and configuration. With the resources that the Pentagon has, it is hard to imagine that they would allow such a breach, although the inside user is the weakest link, but that can also be regulated. The key is to deny access to any sites that are not necessary, except by request. I can imagine that there are many IT security people who would love to lock this kind of problem down.