Hacking the Military: Not Even the Department of Defense Is Impervious

By Stevenson, William H.,, III | Risk Management, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Hacking the Military: Not Even the Department of Defense Is Impervious


Stevenson, William H.,, III, Risk Management


Rome Laboratory, located in the rolling hills of Upstate New York, is the United States Air Force's premier command-and-control research facility. It conducts projects on everything from artificial intelligence to radar guidance to target detection. In April 1994, IT personnel discovered that hackers had broken into the Rome network. For at least three days, the cybercriminals had unrestricted access to the system and were able to copy and download classified files. The monetary cost of the intrusion was significant--at least $500,000--but the security risk was much greater. "We have only the intruders to thank for the fact that no lasting damage occurred," stated the official Air Force report. "Had they decided, as a skilled attacker most certainly will, to bring down the network immediately after the initial intrusion, we would have been powerless to stop them."

Unfortunately for the Department of Defense (DOD), the Rome Laboratory intrusion was not an isolated incident. (See "Hacking the DOD" on the next page.) The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that hackers attempt to break into DOD computers at least 250,000 times a year. Too often, they succeed. But the lessons the DOD has learned from combating the hackers can be applied to risk management and IT security everywhere.

HOW THE HACKERS DO IT

Securing a computer network from hackers may be compared to protecting a house against burglars. The files are the valuables the thief wants. The internet ports are the doors and windows through which he may enter. The user is the homeowner. And in recent years, it is the users that have generally been a hacker's favorite targets.

In the Rome Laboratory incident, hackers sent emails to lab personnel that contained Trojan horse files in a technique known as "spear phishing," a directed strategy that has proven far more dangerous than indiscriminate, mass-mail "phishing." When employees opened the files, they unknowingly loaded malware onto their computers and gave the hackers access. It was as if they had handed a house key to a burglar. Having gotten their foot in the door, the hackers set up fake identities within the Rome network and used these phony profiles to launch attacks on other facilities in locales as far flung as California, South Korea and Latvia. The hackers may have been young, energetic, imaginative geeks who viewed network security as a puzzle to solve and enjoyed pitting themselves against the collective brains of the DOD, but they could just as well have been working for a foreign country that paid them to steal research or sabotage the country's military network.

The 2007 hack into the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) was in some ways even more serious than the Rome Laboratory intrusion. Undetected for two months, malicious code spread throughout the systems, allowing the hackers to steal data from the computers. Repairing the damage and updating the system cost $4 million. Once again, the hackers used email to exploit software vulnerability, sending fake messages to employees to steal their user IDs and passwords. The messages were carefully crafted for the recipients, containing familiar names in order to convince them that the email requests were legitimate.

COUNTERMEASURES

Social-engineering attacks such as those launched against the OSD are surprisingly effective--so much so that some organizations use simulated attacks to train their users. In 2004, more than 500 West Point cadets received an email from Col. Robert Melville alerting them to a problem with their grade reports and instructing them to click on an embedded link to verify their grades. More than 80% of the cadets clicked on the link. But there was no Col. Robert Melville and no problems with the grades. …

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