The computers of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the organization responsible for protecting public health and safety related to nuclear energy, have been targeted by malicious actors on several occasions over the past three years, a report shows.
Information on the attacks, obtained by Nextgov through an open-records request, revealed that one of the incidents involved phishing emails sent to roughly 215 employees of the nuclear regulator. Targeted individuals were asked to click on a link verify their accounts. Those who fell for the ruse, around a dozen NRC employees, were taken to a “cloud-based Google spreadsheet” where they were asked to hand over information.
Those responsible for setting up the phishing page have been tracked to a foreign country which hasn’t been identified in the report.
In a different incident described in the documents, spear phishing emails sent to the organization’s employees contained a link that pointed to a website hosting malware. The campaign made one victim, and the attacker was against traced to a foreign country that was not named.
In another attack, someone hacked into the email account of one NRC employee and sent a malicious PDF attachment to 16 other staff members. Investigators attempted to track down the attacker by subpoenaing the ISP, but the company had no log records because they had been destroyed.
Some of the experts who reviewed the report told Nextgov that a foreign government could be responsible, but others believe that the attacks might not be specifically targeted at the regulator. A 2000 report on the NRC’s efforts to protect its critical infrastructure noted that “attacks on both physical and cyber infrastructure may be capable of significantly harming [the U.S] economic and military power,” so a foreign state could certainly be interested in gaining access to the organization’s systems.
The extent of the damage caused by these attacks and the dates when they took place are unclear. David McIntyre, a public affairs officer with the NRC, said the organizations is always concerned about the potential for cyber intrusions into its networks.
“Every NRC employee completes mandatory annual training on computer security that covers phishing, spear phishing and other attempts to gain illicit access to agency networks,” McIntyre told SecurityWeek. “The NRC’s Computer Security Office detects and thwarts the vast majority of such attempts, through a strong firewall and reporting by NRC employees. The few attempts documented in the OIG Cyber Crimes Unit report as gaining some access to NRC networks were detected and appropriate measures were taken.”
NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell has clarified that such attacks can’t affect nuclear power plant operations.
“The NRC’s computers cannot affect U.S. nuclear power plant operations – the plants’ safety and control systems are physically isolated and have no Internet connectivity. The NRC also requires U.S. reactors to meet stringent cybersecurity requirements for other plant systems,” Burnell said.
In July, research from Unisys and the Ponemon Institute showed that close to 70% of critical infrastructure organizations suffered at least one security breach that led to the loss of confidential information or disruption of operations in the previous 12 months.