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Internet Hack Shutters Some State Department Computers

FILE - The State Department building in Washington, D.C.
FILE - The State Department building in Washington, D.C.

Despite last month’s suspected attack on the U.S. State Department’s email system and website, there’s "no reason to believe classified information was compromised," a spokesman said.

The department had revealed that a portion of its email system and public website were shut down over the weekend – weeks after authorities detected suspicious activity believed to be the work of an outside hacker.

"The State Department, like any other large organization that has a global span, is a constant target of cyberattacks," spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters Monday at a routine daily briefing.

He said the department, after detecting "activity of concern several weeks ago," developed a response with cybersecurity experts from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies and is "implementing carefully planned improvements to the security of our main unclassified network."

Rathke, in explaining why parts of the email system weren’t disconnected until this weekend, said the action was part of previously planned maintenance.

He said he had no information to share on the source of the attack, which remains under investigation.

The intrusion happened about the same time the White House announced several of its unclassified computer systems were hacked into by an outside intruder. In that case, officials were quick to lay blame on Russian hackers, possibly working in cooperation with the Kremlin.

Cyberattacks increasing

Cyber-attacks on U.S. and Western governmental and military assets have been on the uptick lately.

Just in the last few weeks, Chinese hackers reportedly dug into 800,000 employee records at the U.S. Postal Service, breached weather forecast systems at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and compromised the computers of G20 finance ministers by promising nude photos of former model Carla Bruni ahead of the G20 summit. For the record, several European finance ministers clicked.

Sending a message

To be sure, such hacks are embarrassing and troublesome. But of potentially greater threat is what now appears to be a sustained Russian hacking campaign targeting the U.S., German, and Ukrainian governments as well as computer networks at NATO headquarters.

"It’s fair to assume that the Russians can compromise any network that the Chinese can compromise," said Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and now partner at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson. "The Russians are at least as talented as the Chinese, and far more stealthy."

Baker said he’s not the least surprised that Russian hackers, possibly working with elements of the government there, were hacking into sensitive U.S. computers. What’s surprising, he says, is that they did so in such a public fashion.

"The Russians may have made a deliberate decision to be less stealthy, either because it’s easier or because they’re sending us a message," he told VOA via email. “Either way, it’s a sign that our lack of effective response to past foreign government hacks is encouraging more hacks and more willingness to advertise the foreign government hand behind the hacks.”

A State Department spokesperson told VOA they are "working to restore" full computer service.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.