White House Network Attack Highlights Need for Stronger Defenses

Energy systems, banking sites and now the White House have been the latest targets of cyber-attacks on sensitive systems. Security experts say the U.S. should take more steps to defend its networks.

A spear-phishing attack compromised an unclassified system in the White House Military Office. However, the attack was quickly identified, the system isolated and no data taken from the network, the White House stated Oct. 1.

The attack, which came from servers in China, follows a month of escalating cyber-operations against critical industries. On Sept. 10, energy-software firm Telvent told customers that its network had been breached and sensitive documents taken by attackers also coming from China. And, in late September, a number of large banks came under distributed denial-of-service attacks by unknown hackers.

"The cost of these attacks is close to zero, but the repercussions are out of this world," says Anup Ghosh, founder and CEO of threat-protection firm Invincea. "It is time to get serious. ... If you are not outraged by this, then you are not paying attention."

The attack on the White House Military Office could have theoretically gained access to sensitive systems that have information on the president's travel schedule and medical information as well as data on the command-and-control suitcase used by the president to remain in contact with strategic nuclear forces, according to an initial report in the Washington Free Beacon, a seven-month-old news project funded by the conservative Center for American Freedom.

“This is the most sensitive office in the U.S. government,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official told the Free Beacon. “A compromise there would cause grave strategic damage to the United States.”

The White House downplayed the incident, saying that no sensitive data was put at risk.

"This was a spear-phishing attack against an unclassified network," an official said in a statement. "These types of attacks are not infrequent and we have mitigation measures in place. In this instance the attack was identified, the system was isolated, and there is no indication whatsoever that any exfiltration of data took place. Moreover, there was never any impact or attempted breach of any classified system."

While a number of recent attacks reportedly came from servers in China, linking the incidents to the Chinese government is much more difficult. Security specialists can never rule out the possibility of false-flag operations, where one group attacks under the guise of another to stir up tensions. Some security experts, for example, have posited that cyber-criminals could be behind the attack on financial institutions in an attempt to slow down banks' responses to specific incidents of account theft.

Attacking directly from servers in your own nation seems to be a fairly dull, if brazen, way of conducting cyber-operations, says Invincea's Ghosh. China would more likely jump through servers in other countries, before attacking their target, he said.

"They don't normally operate that way—that's a red herring," he said. "They don't point back to themselves. We have to be careful before we launch any sort of strike-back."

Attribution is difficult in cyber-space, but companies have focused on developing better intelligence on the groups that are attacking critical infrastructure to steal national and commercial secrets. The eventual goal is to be able to confidently put the blame for attacks on a certain nation or group, only then can stronger steps be taken, says Ghosh.

"We need to raise the cost of attacks, so that every time my adversary hits me, he's leaving behind tracks that I can use to find him," he said. "Right now there is no cost and no risk to the attacker."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...