Energy ups security efforts after loss of employee data
Latest federal breach highlights a growing security problem
- By Patience Wait
- Jun 16, 2006
Tom Pyke, Energy CIO
The Energy Department has joined a long list of federal agencies that recently have suffered serious breaches of cybersecurity. Unlike those organizations,
however, the DOE breach was the result of a targeted intrusion
and theft, rather than carelessness.
'This is the tip of a much bigger
iceberg,' said Alan Paller, director
of research at the SANS
Institute of Bethesda, Md. 'This
is an example of the kind of attack
and extraction that was
going on for the last 2 1/2 years'
during Titan Rain, an organized
series of cyberattacks believed to
have originated in China.
At DOE, hackers stole personal
information on 1,502 employees'
both government and contract
workers'from an unclassi-
fied system belonging to the
National Nuclear Security Administration,
agency within DOE.
The theft occurred in June
2004 at NNSA's Albuquerque
service center at Kirtland Air
Force Base, but officials did not
discover it until August or September
2005, according to the
Albuquerque Journal, when a
DOE cybersecurity team turned
up evidence of 'an unusual data
And NNSA officials did not
notify Energy secretary Samuel
Bodman of the data theft until
two days before a hearing earlier
this month of the Energy and
Commerce Subcommittee on
Oversight and Investigations,
nor did the agency begin notifying
affected personnel until the
day of the hearing.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas),
chairman of the full committee,
was so angry about NNSA's
handling of the incident that he
told Linton Brooks, the NNSA
administrator, he should resign
or be fired.
The news follows on the heels
of the Veterans Affairs Department
reporting last month that
a notebook PC and hard drive
had been stolen from an employee's
home. The hardware
contained records on more than
26 million veterans and activeduty
service personnel, including
names, dates of birth, Social
Security numbers and other personal
information; the data was
The IRS also reported that an
employee traveling to an agency
event lost a notebook in transit.
The computer contained personal
information, including fingerprints,
names, birth dates and Social
Security numbers of 291 IRS
employees and job applicants that
was secured with a double password
system, but not encrypted.
Even the Social Security Administration'
an agency that received a
security grade of A+ for 2005
under the Federal Information Security
in testimony earlier
this month before the House Government
Reform Committee that
a notebook computer was stolen
from an employee attending a
conference. The computer held
about 200 files containing personal
information on individuals.
In response to this litany of security
woes, Rep. Tom Davis (RVa.),
chairman of the Government
Reform Committee, plans
to introduce legislation soon to
strengthen data breach notification
requirements at federal
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (RWis.),
introduced legislation in
May calling for a five-year prison
sentence or fine of up to $1 million
should a person with knowledge
of a major security breach
affecting 10,000 individuals or
more, databases owned by the
federal government or national
security databases fail to notify
the FBI or Secret Service within
14 days. The bill was passed by
the Judiciary Committee on May
25 and is awaiting a date to be
voted on by the full House.
The NNSA incident involved
the theft of information on 75 federal
employees and 1,427 contract
employees'roughly 4 percent of
the agency's 37,000 workers'at
all levels of the organization.
Tom Pyke, the Energy chief information
officer, said this particular
incident was part of a series of
'very sophisticated' attacks,
though he declined to say whether
it was part of Titan Rain.
Pyke did say the system incursion
did not occur through penetration
of the department's firewall,
but through a social
engineering attack, in this case an
e-mail with an attachment containing
'So far as I know, we have not
had any penetrations of our
perimeter security ... going back
years,' he said.
Jonathan Bingham, chief strategist
and co-founder of Intrusic, a
network security company in
Burlington, Mass., said the weak
point of networks such as DOE's is
not the perimeter defense, but
measures in place behind the firewalls
to spot someone rummaging
around after they've managed to
'Once inside, they're the same'
as a trusted user, Bingham said.
The hacker can be on the internal
network and create 'reverse tunnels'
that open a passage for him
through the firewall and allow information
to be shuttled out.
Pyke testified on Capitol Hill
and then elaborated to GCN
about cybersecurity 'revitalization'
plans now under way.
'Over the past several months,
we've improved our defense in
depth across the department,'
since the intrusion and exfiltration
of data was discovered, Pyke
said. 'We have added layers of intrusion
detection, including at the
server level. We also have recon-
figured our networks to isolate a
hacker, should he penetrate.'
Energy is attacked hundreds of
times a day, he said, so he also
has established a departmentwide
team. The response team
is responsible for determining
the extent of an incident, how
best to stop it, how best to analyze
what happened and what
actions are needed.
'We have been successful in
raising the sensitivity level of our
employees and contractor employees'
attacks, he said. 'We are in a position
in some cases to watch the
bad guys, and to watch their attacks
morph from time to time.'
In addition, DOE has increased
the use of data encryption software
and has implemented twofactor
for systems administrators
at all department sites.
As for notification'one of the
weaknesses for which DOE was
hammered at the congressional
hearing'Pyke said DOE has always
reported incidents, as defined
by the U.S. Computer
Emergency Readiness Team, to
that Homeland Security agency.
But DOE is moving to strengthen
its notification processes, Pyke
'What we have done is try to ensure
people understand it's a good
thing to report incidents,' he said.