How a shutdown would raise attack risk

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Although the national security apparatus is unlikely to let its cyber guard down in the event of a partial government closure Oct. 1, cyber experts said there could be some associated electronic vulnerability, including large-scale attacks or employee-level breaches.

"With the White House, Congress and government agencies focused on the budget showdown, you'd think a non-state actor might think it's a good time" to launch an electronic attack against the U.S., said Trend Micro's vice president of cybersecurity, Tom Kellerman.

Today's electronic environment and cyber concerns are vastly different than they were during the last shutdown in 1996, he said. While electronic attacks weren't real concerns back then, "our adversaries now have attack code" that can be wielded relatively easily from anywhere at any time. Kellerman noted the shutdown might come only a week after a major terrorist assault was quelled in Africa and amid simmering tensions over Syria's use of chemical weapons.




Other experts said the overall risk for electronic attacks against computers and infrastructure wouldn't really change if the government shut down, while nevertheless cautioning that the overall volume of cyber attacks from malware, spear phishing, spam and other techniques has never been higher and continues to mount.

Kevin Haley, director of security, technology and response for Symantec, said smaller, more insidious kinds of strikes could be aimed at furloughed federal workers. Big news events, he said, tend to engender spearphishing attacks. For example, attackers could send emails purporting to contain official information that contain a clickable link to malware, which in turn opens the door to infiltration of a federal network.

He also noted that the potentially quiet offices and fallow networks left behind by furloughed employees might allow malware that's already infiltrated federal networks, or those quietly trying to gain access, to become more active because not as many people are watching. That could depend on the bad guys knowing which agencies had the most personnel furloughed, something the government is still figuring out.

The federal government would also likely continue to help track down cyber attackers at businesses and for the public in the event of a shutdown.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Teams, or US CERT, operated under the Homeland Security Department's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, operates a 24x7 operations center. The center tracks, triages, and collaboratively responds to cyberattacks, provides technical assistance to information system operators and disseminates notifications about current and potential security threats and vulnerabilities.

Operating alongside US CERT is the targeted Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) that handles cybersecurity related to industrial control systems that run in 16 critical infrastructure sectors, including public and private water, electrical, chemical, and financial infrastructures.

DHS declined comment on whether the operations of the response teams would be affected by a shutdown. When asked about that possibility, the agency deferred to the official guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, which states that programs, agencies and the employees deemed necessary to protect life and property would continue to operate in a shut down. As such, most defense, intelligence and law enforcement systems will likely remain operational, staffed by IT and security personnel even as other agencies are shuttered.

Because both CERTs have a direct impact on security, it would be difficult to imagine them being closed. But Kellerman said the CERTs are chronically understaffed, and government contractors who are vulnerable to furlough make up a substantial number of cyber analysts and consultants.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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