White House's bad e-mail luck

First an outage, then cyber suspicions in Europe

A series of unusual events made the executive branch's e-mail system a hot topic last week.

First, the White House system experienced an outage. Then there were reports in Europe of a global cyberattack linked to e-mail messages purported to be from the White House. But then it seemed those messages were part of a hoax that originated in China.

Presidential staff members had no e-mail access for about eight hours Feb. 3 while the unclassified e-mail system in the White House and Executive Office Building ceased operation.

“WH unclassified email went down shortly before 8 AM. Verizon working to solve the problem,” White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a Twitter message that day.

It was the second time in two years that the e-mail system had shut down. The last failure was in January 2009.

The e-mail system was restored by late afternoon Feb. 3. The following day, there was talk at a cybersecurity conference in Munich, Germany, of alleged White House e-mail messages that contained malware.

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague said messages that appeared to be from the White House were sent to several U.K. officials in December 2010. The messages contained links that, if opened, would download a virus onto the user’s computer.

Initially, it was unclear whether the attack came from authentic White House e-mail accounts that had been hacked or from fake e-mail accounts made to resemble White House accounts. Subsequent reports indicated that the messages most likely were faked.

"In late December, a spoof e-mail purporting to be from the White House was sent to a large number of international recipients who were directed to click on a link that then downloaded a variant of Zeus," Hague said, according to an article in the Guardian.

U.K. officials are now saying the cyberattack likely originated in China and the perpetrator used a hoax e-mail address that resembled a White House account, the Guardian article states.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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