DHS official: no evidence federal domains hijacked in global DNS campaign

open lock (Alexander Softog/ 

A two-year campaign that prompted the Department of Homeland Security to issue its first-ever emergency directive to agencies to shore up cyber defenses appears in part to have been an attempt to spy on U.S. government internet traffic.

The campaign appeared to be "a straight espionage, read-the-traffic kind of play" according to a Hill staffer who attended a DHS briefing on the exploit and U.S. response.

In January, DHS issued an emergency directive that gave agencies 10 days to implement protections against a global campaign to hijack Domain Name Servers, targeting governments worldwide.

Now, a top DHS cybersecurity official said an initial forensic review has determined that there is no evidence at this time to indicate any DNS records for federal domains were altered or manipulated.

"The specific threat that sort of motivated us to issue the directive, we don't believe has had a significant impact to the government," said Jeanette Manfra, Assistant Director for Cybersecurity at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in an interview with FCW. "The need to take these actions to protect our DNS infrastructure is necessary regardless of whether we've got a specific threat."

At the time, CISA Director Chris Krebs said that DHS was "aware of a number of agencies affected by the tampering activities" gave rise to concerns that some federal domains may have been hijacked.

While that forensic review is still ongoing and the agency continues to pour through historical data for signs of past tampering, Manfra said "as of now we think we're okay."

That doesn't mean agencies weren't affected. DHS briefed Congress on the campaign two weeks ago and said they had found evidence that some outbound Internet traffic from government domains could have passed through proxy servers set up by a man-in-the-middle attacker outside the federal network perimeter, according to the staffer.

It's not clear because some domains were hijacked for very short periods of time – a few minutes – and DHS doesn’t know if the government traffic passed through a domain at the same time it was compromised.

DHS did not specify if intercepted traffic was web-based, email-based or both. If it was web traffic, it could have given attackers the ability to redirect government employees to a fake website in order to facilitate phishing or credential theft.

If it was email traffic, it could have allowed an attacker to decrypt any U.S. government emails to a compromised, outside domain, read or inject them with malware, then re-encrypt them before sending them to the correct server, all without the user knowing.

Threat intelligence firms like FireEye, Cisco Talos and others have said the hijacking campaign was worldwide and targeted dozens of domains controlled by governments, telecommunications firms and internet infrastructure entities. While FireEye researchers say the group or groups responsible appear to have a connection to Iran, DHS has declined to attribute the attacks to any country or group.

Even if federal domains weren't compromised, Manfra said the fact that they were could be vulnerable to such attacks in the midst of a global hijacking campaign and a partial government shutdown necessitated an emergency response.

Agencies were given "a very aggressive" 10-day deadline to complete four tasks: verify internal DNS records, update DNS account passwords, add multifactor authentication to the account and monitor certificate transparency logs for any suspicious activity.

According to Manfra, agencies have completed verification of their DNS records but there are still a number that missed the deadline for complying with the other three.

"The first thing we were most concerned about is has your domain been hijacked?" said Manfra. "Once we solved that some of the other stuff [like] multifactor authentication can be challenging, it could be a vendor issue, so we're working through that. For the most part they're doing very well and we're helping the rest along."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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