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By | Dan Goodin 7th December 2007 21:35

Top-secret US labs penetrated by phishers

Coordinated attack

One of the most sensitive science and technology labs in the US has been hacked as part of what it called "a sophisticated cyber attack that now appears to be part of a coordinated attempt to gain access to computer networks at numerous laboratories and other institutions across the country."

The unknown attackers managed to access a non-classified computer maintained by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory by sending employees hoax emails that contained malicious attachments. That allowed them to access a database containing the personal information of people who visited the lab over a 14-year period starting in 1990. The institution, which has a staff of about 3,800, conducts top-secret research that is used for homeland security and military purposes.

"At this point we have determined that the thieves made approximately 1,100 attempts to steal data with a very sophisticated strategy that involved sending staff a total of seven 'phishing' emails, all of which at first glance appeared legitimate," Thom Mason, the lab's director, wrote in an email sent to employees on Monday. "At present we believe that about 11 staff opened the attachments, which enabled the hackers to infiltrate the system and remove data."

Los Alamos National Laboratories, another institution that conducts highly sensitive research, has also been breached in the past few months. "Recently, malicious and determined hackers have accessed the Lab’s unclassified Yellow Network and removed a significant amount of unclassified material," according to a November 9 memo sent to employees. The lab's so-called red network, which is reserved for classified information, was not affected.

Word of the attacks comes less than a week after security provider McAfee said state-sponsored cyber spying is on the rise, with at least 120 countries using the internet to conduct espionage. It also comes a few days after MI5, the UK counterintelligence agency, warned UK businesses of the threat posed by state-sponsored Chinese hackers.

Analysts, however, cautioned there wasn't enough information to know who was behind the latest attacks.

"It could run the gamut between either a standard crime group to a nation state-type actor," said Adam J. O'Donnell, a research scientist at Cloudmark, an antispam and messaging security company. "I would not be surprised if it was a sponsored action by another government. At the same time, this type of activity goes on on such a routine basis that I wouldn't be surprised if it was a crime group either."

In either event, the success of the attackers in the breach on the Oak Ridge facility shows the effectiveness of malicious email campaigns that target single individuals or small groups.

A total of seven different phishing emails have been identified in the attack, and they appear to have narrowly targeted the employees. One informed them of a scientific conference, while another pretended to give information about a complaint filed on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission.

Over the past year, such surgical strikes aimed at powerful individuals have proved successful. In May, for instance, security researchers from SecureWorks reported that emails purporting to come from the Better Business Bureau duped 1,400 business managers into installing privacy-stealing key-logging software on their machines.

In the past, the low .1 percent response rate to the phishing emails aimed at Oak Ridge employees might be cause for celebration. But in an age when a single point of failure can compromise an entire system, those metrics are obsolete.

"We know today that information is widely available through computers that are connected to the internet one way or another," said Ken Dunham, Director of Global Response for iSIGHT Partners. "If you're naive enough to think that no one is knocking on your door, you're in for a rude wakeup call." ®

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