Cyber-espionage: How vulnerable are we?

Hacking activities thought to be related to the theft of government secrets are a real threat to national security.  In a January 25, 2006 article in ComputerWorld, John E. Dunn reported that email containing an exploit for the Microsoft Windows WMF vulnerability was sent to recipients in the UK House of Parliament.  

According to Dunn, over 70 PCs were targeted on January 2, 2006 with messages intended to install keyloggers.  This was confirmed by MessageLabs Ltd – the government’s message filtering company.  Luckily, the messages were identified and stopped before they could reach their targets.  The most disturbing piece of information coming out of this incident is the source of the attack – Guangdong Province in China.

An isolated, one-time attack might be passed off as just another malicious individual flexing his muscles.  But this is at least the second incident in which Chinese attackers have targeted foreign governments.  

On November 1, 2004, attackers located in Guangdong Province launched an attack against the U.S. Army facility at Redstone Arsenal.  But this attack is thought to have been successful.  It is believed that U.S. military secrets, including aviation specifications and flight planning software, were stolen.  It is also believed that the intended recipient for this information was the Chinese government.  This successful breach of U.S. Government security is part of an on-going attempt by the Chinese to hack into government computers.  U.S. Officials have named the hackers Titan Rain.

So just how vulnerable is the U.S. infrastructure to cyber attacks by other nations or terrorist groups? 

  1. During a 2004 FISMA required audit of security implemented by entities within the Federal government, seven departments failed to achieve a passing grade. Included in the list of failed departments was the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
  2. Congress and the Bush administration cut by 7% the 2005 DHS budget for cyber security programs.
  3. In February 2005, The Presidential IT Advisory Committee (PITAC) completed a report entitled “Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritzation.”  The following findings and recommendations were presented to the Bush Administration:
    1. Finding: ”The Federal R&D budget provides inadequate funding for fundamental research in civilian cyber security.”  Recommendation: The NSF, DHS, and DARPA budgets should be increased significantly.
    2. Finding: “The Nation’s cyber security research community is too small to adequately support the cyber security research and education programs necessary to protect the United States.”  Recommendation: Double the size of the civilian cyber security fundamental research community by the end of the decade. 
    3. Finding: “Current cyber security technology transfer efforts are not adequate to successfully transition Federal research investiments into civilian sector best practices and products.”  Recommendation: The relationship between the Federal government and the private sector must be strengthened.  Lines of communication and cooperation must be developed and maintained.
    4. Finding: “The overall Federal cyber security R&D effort is currently unfocused and inefficient because of inadequate coordination and oversite.”  Recommendation: The Interagency Working Group on Critical Information Infrastructure Protection should become the focal point of R&D efforts, coordinating and priortizing all activities.
  4. In December 2005, the members of the Cyber Security Alliance expressed to the Bush Administration its frustration with the lack of progress made in addressing online crime.  The Group - including organizations like Computer Associates, McAfee, Symantec, and RSA – believes that the lack of support and leadership shown by the Federal Goverment threatens the economy and national security.

We should not expect the Federal goverment to solve all our problems.  But we should expect leadership when national security and the overall public welfare are threatened.  Congress and the President must change their priorities when addressing cyber security within the context of overall defense and social spending.  If this does not happen, hackers will continue to outstrip our ability to protect our national infrastructure; terrorists and foreign governments will find us a soft target.


Author:  Tom Olzak 


Security experts lift lid on Chinese hack attacks

Tech Group Blasts Federal Leadership on Cyber-Security

PITAC Report on Cyber Security, February 2005

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