By Ted Bridis
April 18, 2007
WASHINGTON - A break-in targeting State Department computers worldwide
last summer occurred after a department employee in Asia opened a
mysterious e-mail that quietly allowed hackers inside the U.S.
In the first public account revealing details about the intrusion and
the government's hurried behind-the-scenes response, a senior State
Department official described an elaborate ploy by sophisticated
international hackers. They used a secret break-in technique that
exploited a design flaw in Microsoft software.
Consumers using the same software remained vulnerable until months
Donald R. Reid, the senior security coordinator for the Bureau of
Diplomatic Security, also confirmed that a limited amount of U.S.
government data was stolen by the hackers until tripwires severed all
the State Department's Internet connections throughout eastern Asia. The
shut-off left U.S. government offices without Internet access in the
tense weeks preceding missile tests by North Korea.
Reid was scheduled to testify Thursday at a cybersecurity hearing for a
House Homeland Security subcommittee. He was expected to tell lawmakers
an employee in the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific
Affairs which coordinates diplomacy in countries including China, the
Koreas and Japan opened a rigged e-mail message in late May giving
hackers access to the government's network.
The chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson,
D-Miss., said hackers are no longer considered harmless, bored
teenagers. These are experienced, sophisticated people who are trying to
exploit our vulnerabilities and gain access to our information, Thompson
Reid was not expected to disclose the identities or nationalities of the
hackers believed to be responsible for the break-ins or to disclose
whether U.S. authorities believe a foreign government was responsible.
The department struggled with the break-ins between May and early July.
The panel's chairman, Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., called
cybersecurity an often-overlooked line of defense. Since much of our
critical infrastructure is dependent on computers and networks and is
interconnected and interdependent, a cyberattack could disrupt major
services and cripple economic activity, Langevin said.
The mysterious State Department e-mail appeared to be legitimate and
included a Microsoft Word document with material from a congressional
speech related to Asian diplomacy, Reid said. By opening the document,
the employee activated hidden software commands establishing what Reid
described as backdoor communications with the hackers.
The technique exploited a previously unknown design flaw in Microsoft's
Office software, Reid said. State Department officials worked with the
Homeland Security Department and even the FBI to urge Microsoft to
develop quickly a protective software patch, but the company did not
offer the patch until Aug. 8 roughly eight weeks after the break-in.
At the time, Microsoft described the software flaw as a newly
discovered, privately reported vulnerability but did not suggest any
connection to the U.S. government break-in. It urged consumers to apply
the update immediately. It also recommended that consumers not open or
save Microsoft Office files they receive from sources they don't trust
or files they receive unexpectedly from trusted sources.
The State Department detected its first break-in immediately, Reid said,
and worked to block suspected communications with the hackers. But
during its investigation, it discovered new break-ins at its Washington
headquarters and other offices in eastern Asia, Reid said.
At first, the hackers did not immediately appear to try stealing any
U.S. government data. Authorities quietly monitored the hackers'
activity, then tripwires severed Internet connections in the region
after a limited amount of data was detected being stolen, Reid said.
Reid also complained the State Department's efforts to deal quietly with
the break-in were disrupted by news reports. The Associated Press was
first to reveal the intrusions.
We were successful here until a newspaper article telegraphed what we
were dealing with, Reid said.
Copyright 2007 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
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