How Unpatched Vulnerabilities Could be Responsible for U.S. Government Data Breach

I read an interesting article from CNN reporter Theodore Schleifer, who wrote “How China could have hacked the U.S. government in 10 steps.”

Last Thursday, U.S. investigators said that more than 4 million current and former government personnel records were compromised in a large-scale cyber attack. The assumption is that the Chinese have hundreds of thousands of security clearance forms, which could be used for bribery or to stage future attacks via phishing campaigns, etc.






Image credit: Tim Sackton | Licensed under: CC BY 2.0






Here are Schleifer’s 10 steps that could have been used to hack the government according to U.S. officials:

1.    Find Agency X

Let's say there is a U.S. government agency -- Agency X -- that does not update its server operating system software patches.

2.    Spam

Between one and two years ago, that agency gets flooded with broad-based phishing emails.

3.    Get a Federal Worker to Reply

That attack is successful and the attacker, now known to be China, receives some replies from employees at Agency X.

4.    Focus on Agency X

Based on those returns, the attacker then moves to more targeted spear-phishing attacks against Agency X.

5.    Find Additional Points of Entry

At least one -- or maybe more -- of the spear phishing attacks is successful. This is first point failure from lack of patching, or quickly securing a hole in the system.

6.    Spread

Now, the attacker has a toehold into Agency X on a deep level, beyond an individual.

7.    Discover Vulnerabilities

The attacker then is able to find the unpatched vulnerability on the server software at Agency X.

8.    Become an Admin

The attacker makes his next move: Through that vulnerability, the attacker creates a fake administrator account and gave itself escalating privileges.

9.    Create New Users

Now, the attacker deploys those privileges to create new user accounts at Agency X.

10.    Exploit Fake Users

Those user accounts are used to spearhead phish and a return from OPM.

11.    Avoid Threat Detection

In April, the U.S. government learned of the ten-step plan to hack it. For two months, the federal government didn't reveal the information publicly because they had not yet cleaned up the entire system. Nor did federal officials want the Chinese to know they were onto them.

It’s worth noting that the federal government took months (or longer) to detect the security breach. But, the key takeaway...

Attackers Took Advantage of Unpatched Vulnerabilities

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To learn more about the anatomy of an insider threat, watch this Randy Franklin Smith on-demand webcast.