White House e-mail 'attacks' actually came from China, officials say

Perpetrators spoofed e-mail address that appeared to come from White House

A cyberattack targeting British officials, which at first appeared to be carried in White House e-mails, actually originated in China, with the perpetrator using a hoax e-mail address that resembled a White House account, officials in the United Kingdom said. Nevertheless, the U.K. officials are using the opportunity to call for more cooperation among governments to jointly agree on policies for state-based covert cyber activity.

The initial reports on Feb. 4 from British Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated that e-mail messages alleged to be from the White House were sent to several British officials in late December. The e-mails contained links that, if opened, would download a virus onto the user’s computer.

It was first unclear if the attack came from authentic White House e-mail accounts that had been hacked and infected with a virus or from fake e-mail accounts made to resemble White House e-mail messages. In recent days, the latter scenario appears the more likely.

According to several news accounts, Hague referred to “spoof” White House e-mail accounts, suggesting that the messages were not authentic.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that the cyberattack is now believed to have originated in China.

Although the foreign secretary did not name the country behind the attacks, intelligence sources familiar with the incidents made it clear the originating country was China, the Guardian said in an article Feb. 4.

"In late December a spoof e-mail purporting to be from the White House was sent to a large number of international recipients who were directed to click on a link that then downloaded a variant of Zeus," Hague said, according to the article. "The U.K. government was targeted in this attack and a large number of e-mails bypassed some of our filters. Our experts were able to clear up the infection, but more sophisticated attacks such as these are becoming more common."

On Feb. 6, in a subsequent article in the Guardian, Hague indicated that more international agreement is needed for state-based covert cyber activity. The article suggested that the United States may be involved in such activity.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

inside gcn

  • cybersecurity (vs148/Shutterstock.com)

    NIST lays groundwork for encrypting IoT devices

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 9, 2011

When it became clear that the commercial side of internet would dwarf the original government/edu/mil side, US Gov (and friendly foreign govs) should have set up a seperate internet with a seperate IP range, and few if any gateways to the normal internet, for official use only. This semi-trusted network would have made it a lot harder for spoofs like this to happen.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group