DOE data breach came after warnings

The Energy Department's IG had pointed out vulnerabilities in the agency's cybersecurity program just weeks before a successful cyberattack compromised confidential data.

cyberattack graphic

A cyberattack on Energy Department networks that compromised confidential data apparently came weeks after two reports from DOE’s inspector general highlighted vulnerabilities at the agency.

The data breach occurred in January but was disclosed to DOE employees in Washington on Feb. 1, according to Reuters. The breach did not compromise classified information, authorities said. Instead, personally identifiable information of employees and contractors was hacked by unknown sources. DOE has not said which of its components were targeted in the attack.

A January cyber incident would have come just weeks after two DOE IG reports evaluated the department’s cybersecurity program and its incident response and management. While acknowledging progress in cybersecurity efforts, the reports identify a number of areas of vulnerability in the agency, including at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Weaknesses in DOE’s cybersecurity program include issues with access control, vulnerability management, integrity of Web applications and planning for continuity of operations, according to the November 2012 report. The IG found faults "related to vulnerability management that could have allowed unauthorized access to systems and information," as well as "at least 29 Web applications, including those supporting financial, human resources and general support functions" that could allow attackers to manipulate network systems. "The weaknesses identified occurred, in part, because the department elements had not ensured that cybersecurity requirements were fully developed and implemented," the report states.

In December 2012, the IG found "several issues that limited the efficiency and effectiveness of the department's cybersecurity incident management program and adversely impacted the ability of law enforcement to investigate incidents." Among them were duplicative and disjointed incident management capabilities that cost the agency $30 million annually and inconsistencies in the timely identification and reporting of incidents, which is required by law.

DOE and NNSA "had not developed and deployed an effective and/or efficient enterprisewide cybersecurity incident management program," the IG’s report states. "In addition, organizations had not always appropriately reported successful incidents such as infection by malicious code and potential disclosure of personally identifiable information."

It is unclear whether the hackers behind the January attack were after such information or something else, but according to one cybersecurity expert, malicious actors can do plenty of damage with that type of information.

"Most actors have broad interests," said Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Mandiant. "On the unclassified side, anything on how to invest, companies to target in terms of industry resources, where the U.S. is drilling, where there are mines, who makes decisions on permits -- all of that information they can turn around for state-directed energy efforts. [Personally identifiable information] can be used as potential leverage to get valid credentials. They can try to figure out who works where to get credentials to impersonate them and access information. They can also target those people directly through phishing or impersonate them to contact their contacts and expand influence."

In response to the recent intrusion, DOE leaders told employees in the Feb. 1 letter that they are increasing network monitoring and deploying tools to protect sensitive assets. Bejtlich noted that the agency, which is not new to being a cyber target, has plenty of tools in its arsenal but there is always room for improvement.

"DOE has a history of pretty strong network security measures; they've been known to use tools that watch network traffic, inspect and log traffic, and perform analyses against it," he said. "There are all sorts of additional sensors they can deploy and techniques they can try. But they need to think about a regular assessment program where they send in experts whose only job is to look for bad guys. An agency like DOE, or the Defense Department or intelligence community, [has] the personnel to do that kind of work and should be more aggressive. They should project some power on networks...as opposed to what seems to be more ad hoc operations."

And although the IG’s reports call for more unified, enterprisewide cyber efforts, Bejtlich said DOE and other agencies need to identify adversaries’ targets and focus protections there.

"You can't just have a grand plan to wallpaper over everybody; there aren't enough resources," he said. "These agencies are so big [that] they can't come up with some monolith for the whole thing.... It takes too long to roll out and doesn’t work."

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