Security Experts:

U.S. State Department Takes Network Offline After Activity of 'Concern'

The U.S. State Department has shut down an unclassified network and email system in response to suspicious activity recently detected by the government.

Contacted by SecurityWeek Sunday night, a Senior State Department Official said that the incident did not affect any classified systems.

"The Department recently detected activity of concern in portions of its unclassified email system,” the Official told SecurityWeek. “There was no compromise of any of the Department's classified systems."

“The Department is implementing improvements to the security of its main unclassified network during a scheduled outage of some internet-linked systems,” the Official added. “This has impacted some of our unclassified email traffic and our access to public web sites from our main unclassified system. We expect our systems to be up and running soon.”

Late last month that White House said that an unclassified computer network was breached after they had identified "activity of concern" on the unclassified network of the Executive Office of the President (EOP) while assessing recent threats. The official said the attackers didn't cause any damage, but some White House users were temporarily disconnected from the network while the incident was managed.

Last week, the US Postal Service shut down its employee VPN access and suspended telecommuting after hackers accessed data on an estimated 800,000 employees and contractors, and some customers. The attack compromised personally-identifiable information about all active employees, including names, social security numbers, dates of birth and other information. The intrusion also compromised call center data for customers who contacted the Postal Service Customer Care Center by phone or email between Jan. 1 and August 16.

The Washington Post reported that  China is suspected of being behind the Postal Service attack, while saying hackers backed by the Russian government are suspected of behing responsible for the White House attack.

"Geopolitical tensions are now manifested through cyberattacks,” Tom Kellermann, Trend Micro chief cybersecurity officer and former commissioner on The Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency, told SecurityWeek following the recent White House cyber incident. “The enemies of the state conduct tremendous reconnaissance on their targets granting them situational awareness as to our defenses in real time. This reality allows for elite patriotic hackers to bypass our defenses." 

The fact that the bad guys are able to breach and compromise unclassified systems is important to understand, Eric Cowperthwaite, VP of Advanced Security & Strategy at Core Security, told SecurityWeek.

"[The Government's] unclassified systems are still protected by security measures, just not to the same degree as the classified ones," Cowperthwaite said.  "Most US businesses protect their networks and computer systems about on par with what the US government requires of unclassified systems. With that being the case, it is very clear that businesses, including retail, healthcare, financial services, public utilities, municipal governments and more are not going to be able to stop a capable adversary."

"With 90% of all computer networks and defenses in private hands, the risk is clearly very high," he continued. "Businesses must do more to understand the threats and how they are vulnerable. They are going to have to greatly increase their maturity and capability in the face of this ongoing threat.”

*Updated with additional commentary

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For more than 10 years, Mike Lennon has been closely monitoring the threat landscape and analyzing trends in the National Security and enterprise cybersecurity space. In his role at SecurityWeek, he oversees the editorial direction of the publication and is the Director of several leading security industry conferences around the world.