WASHINGTON—The State Department has revealed that a portion of its email system and public website were shut down over the weekend after authorities detected suspicious activity believed to be an outside computer hack.
A State Department spokesperson, speaking with the Associated Press, said the attack occurred in October, but did not affect any of State’s classified computer systems. The spokesperson did not say why State technicians waited until this weekend to disconnect portions of the email system, but did say the entire email service should be restored to full operations in the near future.
The intrusion happened about the same time the White House announced several of its unclassified computer systems were hacked into by an outside intruder. In that case, officials were quick to lay blame on Russian hackers, possibly working in cooperation with the Kremlin.
Cyber-attacks on U.S. and Western governmental and military assets have been on the uptick lately.
Just the last few weeks, Chinese hackers reportedly dug into 800,000 employee records at the U.S. Postal Service, breached weather forecast systems at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and compromised the computers of G20 finance ministers by promising nude photos of former model Carla Bruni ahead of the G20 summit. For the record, several European finance ministers clicked.
Sending a message
To be sure, such hacks are embarrassing and troublesome. But of potentially greater threat is what now appears to be a sustained Russian hacking campaign targeting the U.S., German, and Ukrainian governments as well as computer networks at NATO headquarters.
“It’s fair to assume that the Russians can compromise any network that the Chinese can compromise,” says Stewart Baker, former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and now partner at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson. “The Russians are at least as talented as the Chinese, and far more stealthy.”
Baker said he’s not the least surprised that Russian hackers, possibly working with elements of the government there, were hacking into sensitive U.S. computers. What’s surprising, he says, is that they did so in such a public fashion.
“The Russians may have made a deliberate decision to be less stealthy, either because it’s easier or because they’re sending us a message,” he told VOA via email. “Either way, it’s a sign that our lack of effective response to past foreign government hacks is encouraging more hacks and more willingness to advertise the foreign government hand behind the hacks.”
A State Department spokesperson told VOA they are “working to restore” full computer service.
Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to “The New York Times,” the “Christian Science Monitor,” SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.