List of hacked government agencies grows: State Department, White House, NOAA & USPS

Tattered American flag
Credit: Pamela Andrade

If whispers can be believed, then Chinese hackers are kicking U.S. government cyber butt and taking names as the growing list of government data breaches now includes the State Department, the White House, NOAA -- which includes the National Weather Service and satellite data -- and USPS.

The State Department joins the White House, the United States Postal Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on a growing list of hacked government agencies. Expect to hear of more government networks infiltrated as a Georgia Institute of Technology report on emerging cyber threats in 2015 (pdf) states, “Low-intensity online nation-state conflicts become the rule, not the exception.”  

State Department hacked at same time as White House unclassified network

An unnamed official told the Associated Press that the State Department’s classified systems were not affected, but the “department shut down its worldwide email late on Friday as part of a scheduled outage of some of its Internet-linked systems to make security improvement t its main unclassified computer network.”

The White House detected suspicious activity on its unclassified network in late October. Although the State Department found “no indication” of being compromised at that time, now a department official claims the “activity of concern” was detected around the same time as the attack on the White House’s network. It’s unclear why so much time passed after its network was infiltrated before the State Department slammed on the brakes and took the “unprecedented step of shutting down its entire unclassified email system.”

USPS hacked        

The FBI notified the USPS that it suffered an intrusion in September. USPS later confirmed the breach went all the way back “to at least the beginning of January.” Chinese government hackers are suspected to be behind the cyberattack, reported The Washington Post. Names, birth dates, addresses and social security numbers of 800,000 USPS employees were stolen. Much like the State Department waited before shoring up security, the USPS was aware of the hack in Sept. but took didn’t start repairing the breach until the second weekend in November.

Although USPS claimed no customer payment data was taken, “hackers swiped call center data going back to Jan. 1. That includes names, addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses of people who contacted the Postal Service's Customer Care Center.” Nevertheless, the FBI said to report any suspected instances of identity theft to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

As you likely recall, the USPS takes a photo of every letter and package mailed in the U.S.; that’s about 160 billion pieces of mail per year. “Tens of thousands” of those images are handed over to law enforcement agencies for additional scrutiny. The USPS reported approving “nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.”

While there was nothing mentioned about hackers pilfering data from that Mail Isolation and Tracking system, there would certainly be lot stored at any given moment since photos of letters and packages are usually “stored for a week to 30 days and then destroyed.” The amount would surely be mind-boggling if it were also compromised since January.

NOAA hacked

NOAA was hacked too, but has been accused of trying to cover up the compromise. Not only did NOAA fail to notify the proper authorities about cyber intrusion that occurred in September, the agency went as far as to claim “unscheduled maintenance” on its network was to blame for the unavailability of National Weather Service satellite images. NOAA finally admitted there was a problem on October 20, yet the agency did not admit its systems were breached.

It should be no surprise that China has been blamed for the attack on NOAA. “The Chinese are stealing us blind,” Rep. Frank R. Wolf said. “NOAA told me it was a hack and it was China,” added Wolf. He blamed NOAA for not disclosing the attack “and deliberately misleading the American public in its replies. They had an obligation to tell the truth,” but “they covered it up.”

“China is also suspected in recent hacks of U.S. Investigations Services, the government’s main security clearance contractor, and the Office of Personnel Management, where cyber thieves went for information on employees with top-secret clearances,” reported The Hill.

U.S. Coast Guard contractor stole personal data more than 250 times while repairing PCs

But not all cyber threats that result in pilfered private information can be laid at the feet of Chinese or Russian hackers. For example, a contractor for the U.S. Coast Guard who worked as a computer “help desk” technician “pleaded guilty to stealing personal information from hundreds of computers and other electronic devices that he was supposed to be fixing.”

“Court documents show that more than 250 times, Mathews copied personal information and files from computers and other electronics that had been brought to him for repair. The stolen information and files included account names and passwords, as well as sexually-explicit photos and videos.” WTNH added that 34-year-old Larry Mathews “only shared the stolen information with one person, who reported him to police.”

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