DOE security upgrades could better protect data

Security revitalization effort began months before data theft was revealed.

The Energy Department is six months into a security revitalization project that could help prevent attacks such as the recently reported incident in which cyber thieves stole records on 1,500 DOE employees.

That theft happened more than a year ago, and it affected the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is a semiautonomous DOE organization, according to its Web site. Tom Pyke, the department’s chief information officer, said the security upgrade was already well under way before he or other top agency officials learned of the incident.

At the time of the security breach, DOE’s security was tight, Pyke said. The department had firewalls and intrusion-detection systems in place. The cyber thieves did not penetrate those defenses. Instead, they resorted to a common social engineering attack in which they enticed an employee to click on an e-mail message attachment. The attachment executed malicious code that allowed the thieves to take the data.

Outsider attacks are not often successful, but when they are, they can be devastating, said Brandon Hoff, chief marketing officer at CipherOptics. Intruders can plant a backdoor, which is code that allows them to easily access the network and bypass security measures without detection, Hoff said.

Pyke, who also led the creation of a cyber incident management team, said the department withstands hundreds of thousands of attempts to break into its systems every day. Most of the attacks are ineffective and inconsequential. The moment a management team identifies a hack attempt as an incident — an attack serious and sophisticated enough to potentially succeed — “people are on top of it,” he said.

“What we have done over the last several months is to enhance awareness,” he said.

To teach e-mail users not to facilitate a future cyber theft, Pyke’s staff occasionally sends test messages that resemble malicious e-mail. Employees who take the bait get a message admonishing them.

“We need to get the right continual training,” he said. “My experience has been that most folks don’t understand the seriousness of the message at first.”

Bruce Brody, vice president of information security at Input, said many agencies lack centralized security practices.

Lise Neely, product marketing manager at Princeton Softech, said agencies and other organizations are often careless with personal information.

“People have a good understanding of protecting the production environment, where all the processing happens,” Neely said. “Hackers will look for other ways in. There are nonproduction environments that become a backdoor for a hacker.”