Federal domains appear untouched by DNS hijack campaign

A two-year campaign to spy on U.S. government internet traffic seems to be what prompted the Department of Homeland Security in January to issue its first-ever emergency directive that gave agencies 10 days to implement protections against a global effort to hijack domain name servers.

The operation appeared to be "a straight espionage, read-the-traffic kind of play" according to a Hill staffer who attended a DHS briefing on the exploit and U.S. response.

Now, a top DHS cybersecurity official said, an initial forensic review has determined that there is no evidence at this time to indicate any DNS records for federal domains were altered or manipulated.

"The specific threat that sort of motivated us to issue the directive, we don't believe has had a significant impact to the government," said Jeanette Manfra, assistant director for cybersecurity at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in an interview with FCW, GCN's sibling site. "The need to take these actions to protect our DNS infrastructure is necessary regardless of whether we've got a specific threat."

At the time, CISA Director Chris Krebs' tweet that DHS was "aware of a number of agencies affected by the tampering activities" gave rise to concerns that some federal domains may have been hijacked.

While that forensic review is still ongoing and the agency continues to pore through historical data for signs of past tampering, "as of now we think we're okay," Manfra said.

That doesn't mean agencies weren't affected. DHS briefed Congress on the campaign two weeks ago and said it had found evidence that some outbound internet traffic could have passed through proxy servers set up by a man-in-the-middle attacker outside the federal network perimeter, according to the staffer.

It's not clear because some domains were hijacked for very short periods of time -- a few minutes -- and DHS doesn’t know if the government traffic passed through a domain at the same time it was compromised.

DHS did not specify if intercepted traffic was web-based, email-based or both. If it was web traffic, it could have given attackers the ability to redirect government employees to a fake website in order to facilitate phishing or credential theft.

If it was email traffic, it could have allowed an attacker to decrypt any U.S. government emails to a compromised, outside domain, read or inject them with malware, then re-encrypt them before sending them to the correct server, all without the user knowing.

Threat intelligence firms like FireEye, Cisco Talos and others have said the hijacking campaign was worldwide and targeted dozens of domains controlled by governments, telecommunications firms and internet infrastructure entities. While FireEye researchers said the group or groups responsible appear to have a connection to Iran, DHS has declined to attribute the attacks to any country or group.

Even if federal domains weren't compromised, Manfra said the fact they could be vulnerable to such attacks in the midst of a global hijacking campaign and a partial government shutdown necessitated an emergency response.

Agencies were given "a very aggressive" 10-day deadline to complete four tasks: verify internal DNS records, update DNS account passwords, add multifactor authentication to the account and monitor certificate transparency logs for any suspicious activity.

According to Manfra, agencies have completed verification of their DNS records, but there are still a number that missed the deadline for complying with the other three.

"The first thing we were most concerned about is has your domain been hijacked?" Manfra said. "Once we solved that, some of the other stuff [like] multifactor authentication can be challenging, it could be a vendor issue, so we're working through that. For the most part they're doing very well and we're helping the rest along."

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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