Russia Implicated in White House Email Hack

A report blames Russia for an attack against the White House email system in 2014.


On Oct. 28, 2014, news first broke about a security breach in the White House email system, and at the time, there was speculation that Russia was involved. Now a new report from CNN is claiming that Russia in fact was the source of the attack.

The attack allegedly breached an unclassified network in the White House, and there is no indication about what data may have been taken. The renewed accusation that Russia was involved in the incident is not a surprise to security experts contacted by eWEEK.

"While the White House hasn't officially commented on who is responsible for the attack, at CrowdStrike we are seeing a dramatic rise in cyber-intrusion activity from the Russian government since the sanctions regime was put in place against them last year," Dmitri Alperovitch, CTO and co-founder of CrowdStrike, a provider of next-generation endpoint protection, threat intelligence and services, told eWEEK. "We are literally tracking hundreds of breaches that they've been initiating against both government and commercial targets and have been battling and stopping their intrusion attempts at a number of customers."

Casey Ellis, CEO and co-founder of Bugcrowd, said he isn't surprised that Russia may be involved in the White House hack given the tense relationship between the United States and Russia, and the concentration of cyber-security talent in that part of the world.

"Russia has its own version of the NSA [U.S. National Security Agency], and we know a lot more now about what the NSA has been doing, so it's no surprise to see the U.S. on the receiving end," Ellis told eWEEK. "Spies gonna spy."

Also not surprised that Russia is again being accused of hacking the White House email system is TK Keanini, CTO of security company Lancope. That said, he added that attribution can be difficult and sometimes dangerous. "Oftentimes, when the evidence is overwhelmingly obvious, it could have been planted there to frame someone," Keanini told eWEEK.

Since attackers don't digitally sign the evidence they produce, when an accusing finger is pointed at someone, sometimes it is because someone else wanted the finger pointed in that direction, Keanini added.

"We must be extremely skeptical with this attribution in the digital realm," he said.

The attack against the White House could come from any nation-state, including China, Morey Haber, vice president of technology at cyber-security company BeyondTrust, told eWEEK. "The fact that news reports are still saying White House officials can't confirm the infection has been completely removed suggests an extremely well-designed and well-funded attack, likely malware," he said.

State-sponsored adversaries are very persistent, and once given a target, they will work for weeks and often months at a time to get access to the network, according to CrowdStrike's Alperovitch. In his experience, most organizations don't experience cyber-intrusions as discrete events but as a long and ongoing battle against the adversary.

"To that end, we are actively advising customers to deploy endpoint security technology across their host infrastructure to gain full visibility into all adversary activity and as an advanced means to prioritize their response and contain the damage," Alperovitch said.

Based on what has been publicly reported at this point, the White House intrusion began with a social engineering attack, specifically email phishing, according to Eric Cowperthwaite, vice president of advanced security and strategy at Core Security, a provider of attack intelligence solutions. That was followed by the attacker pivoting within the network and being able to compromise several unclassified systems.

"This is a pretty classic pattern of attack, and improved vulnerability management should mean that the intrusion could be stopped after the social engineering attack," Cowperthwaite told eWEEK. "Clearly, attack paths and vulnerabilities from the desktop environment to email servers were available and used. The White House security and IT teams need to look at that."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.