Top-secret US lab infiltrated by spear phishers – again

IE 0day leads to theft of data


One of the most sensitive science labs in the US has shut down all internet access after attackers exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser to steal data from some of its servers, according to published news reports.

The security breach at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is at least the second time since 2007 that computers have been hacked when employees were duped by phishing emails. The most recent compromise was initiated by messages that were manipulated so that they appeared to come from the lab's Human Resource Department, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

According to a follow-up post, a link included in the fraudulent email, which first entered the lab's systems on April 7, exploited a critical vulnerability in IE that Microsoft fixed last Tuesday. It was the same bug that fetched a security researcher a $15,000 prize in the recent Pwn2Own hacking contest.

A lab spokesman told Security News Daily that security personnel “saw substantial activity” that resulted in “very limited data in the megabytes, not the gigabytes” being stolen.

The publication also said that of the 530 or so employees who received the email, 57 of them clicked on the booby-trapped link. It's a startling admission, given that the previous security breach was also touched off when workers clicked on malicious attachments embedded in emails that informed the recipients of an upcoming scientific conference or pretended to give information about a complaint filed on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission.

As is becoming common when malware penetrates a highly sensitive organization that should have known better, Oak Ridge National Labs blamed the breach on an “advanced persistent threat,” a buzz term that seems to mean different things to different people. RSA recently used the same phrase when disclosing an attack on its network that could compromise the security of its SecurID tokens for two-factor authentication.

A spokeswoman for the lab told Computerworld that email service was expected to be restored on Wednesday, although no attachments would be allowed for the time being. She also told the publication that several other national laboratories and government organizations were targeted in the same attacks.

Oak Ridge National Laboratories is a highly secretive facility located in Tennessee that is used for homeland security and military purposes. It is managed by the US Department of Energy and conducts research into nuclear energy, chemical science, and biological systems.

Representatives didn't return emails and calls seeking comment. ®


Other stories you might like

  • Experts: AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law
    Plus: Police release deepfake of murdered teen in cold case, and more

    In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

    Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

    "If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge," they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. "Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions."

    Continue reading
  • Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers
    Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more

    More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

    These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

    PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

    Continue reading
  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022