Phishing Attack Hits National Labs

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been bombarded by a coordinated phishing attack aimed at multiple national labs and may have unwittingly handed over to attackers the personal information of anybody who visited the lab over a 14-year span, including Social Security numbers.

On Dec. 3, Laboratory Director Thom Mason sent a letter to staff telling them that ORNL was targeted by “a sophisticated cyber-attack” that appears to be part of a larger coordinated attempt to gain access to computer networks at numerous laboratories and other institutions across the country. Los Alamos was also targeted, according to news accounts.

The first phishing e-mail, and first potential data theft, occurred on Oct. 29.

ORNL, managed for the U.S. Department of Energy by UT-Battelle, works on science and technology involved in energy production and national security. ORNL management does not believe that classified data was stolen in the attack, however.

The attack comprised approximately 1,100 targeted phishing attempts crafted to look like legitimate e-mail. The attackers cooked up seven phishing variations, one of which purportedly advertised a scientific conference, another of which posed as a notification about a complaint on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission.

All of the phishing e-mails instructed lab employees to open an attachment for more information or to click on an embedded link. ORNL’s investigators now believe that about 11 staff fell for the come-ons and opened the attachments or clicked on the links. That was enough for the attackers to install keyloggers or other types of malware that gave attackers access to systems and the ability to extract data.

Mason said in his letter that attackers potentially gained access to a nonclassified database containing personal information of visitors to the lab between 1990 and 2004. ORNL’s management doesn’t believe that the attackers managed to get access to classified data.

The attackers may have gotten access to names and other personal information, however, including Social Security numbers and dates of birth. ORNL isn’t aware of any identity theft that has arisen from the security breach at this time, but is advising those persons affected to check their credit reports and put a fraud alert on their credit files. The lab is providing contact information for the three major credit reporting bureaus in an advisory posted on its site.

Mason said reconstructing the crime is tedious and time-consuming and will likely take weeks, if not longer. ORNL is attempting to send letters to every visitor potentially affected but may have difficulties due to out-of-date addresses, management said in its advisory. The lab has also promised to update its advisory regarding potentially stolen information as the situation progresses.

Mason said in his note to staff that “every security system at ORNL was in place and in compliance.”

But as Application Security Vice President of Marketing and Strategy Ted Julian pointed out, it’s simply impossible to secure all conduits to data. “If you think you’re going to prevent all phishing attempts from [succeeding] in an enterprise, that’s probably false. And if you think that with training, not a single employee will [click on phishing attempts and let an attacker] get through, that’s probably false,” he said.

“There’s a million [conduits to data theft], and now that the attackers have gotten much more professional and focused, they only need one to get at the information. You only need one unsecured avenue and they’re off and running.”

Judging from Mason’s letter to staff, it’s likely that employee training about phishing attempts will be given renewed emphasis in the future in order to attempt to close down this particular avenue of data theft.

“While our hope is that no one would fall for these kinds of tricks from hackers, we believe there is an ongoing benefit to re-emphasizing staff awareness about cyber-security issues,” he wrote. “We must not click on e-mail attachments if we are not absolutely sure who the e-mail is from and we must not click on [URLs] embedded in e-mails unless we are certain of the source.”

Check out’s Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK’s Security Watch blog.

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