US government hack puts sensitive data at risk of secondary phishing attacks

Data theft puts military, economic, and foreign political strategy data at risk

The theft of personal details of millions of US government employees last week has not just put personal; data at risk, but also a wide variety of other highly sensitve data - from economic information to political strategy data - according to security experts.

The nature of the attack of Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) systems - which many are attributing to a nation state at this stage - means that a financial motive is unlikely. However stolen personal details could offer the cyber thieves the opportuntity to delve further into systems using spearphishing techniques.

"Theft of personal and demographic data allows one of the most effective secondary attacks to be mounted: direct spear-phishing," said, Mark Bower, global director of HP Security Voltage. This offers access to deeper system access via credentials or malware "thus accessing more sensitive data repositories as a consequence".

"Beyond spear-phishing, knowing detailed personal information past and present creates possible cross-agency attacks given job history data appears to be in the mix," he said.

"Thus, it is likely this attack is less about money, but more about gaining deeper access to other systems and agencies which might even be defence or military data, future economic strategy data, foreign political strategy, and sensitive assets of interest at a nation-state level for insight, influence and intellectual property theft."

The breach, discovered by the US government's intrusion detection systems, follows an unsuccessful attempt to infiltrate the OPM's systems last year.

It also comes days after it was revealed that criminals had stolen tax information from 104,000 Americans via the IRS' website.

Such incidents raise questions about the government's ability to protect sensitive data - an issue that is just as relevant on this side of the Atlantic as it is in the US.

'Organisational confidence takes a long-time to build but can - and is - eroded much more quickly," Gavin Reid, VP of threat intelligence at Lancope told ComputerworldUK.

"The US-GOV breaches put these trusted government organisations in the same light as all the recent private company breaches like Target and Home Depot. The big difference here is the government has much more sensitive data and the victims have no choice in sharing."

While large scale security incidents are becoming more frequent, it is likely the OPM breach will lead to organisationss in both the public and private sectors re-evaluating their security processes. This means modernising both tools and security methods.

"Attackers have learnt how to bypass basic security protections," Tom Court, Cyber Crime Researcher at Alert Logic told ComputereworldUK. "Firewalls and desktop anti-virus are no longer enough to protect against anything but the most cursory glance by an attacker. To maintain abreast of attackers organisations need to get technology, threat intelligence and importantly people working together.

"Organisations need to be continuously monitoring systems, logs and network traffic to spot abnormal behaviour and have skilled people who can analyse the event to spot successful breaches."

However, Gavin Millard, technical director of Tenable Network Security, commented that businesses and organisations seeking to reassess their security practices in the wake of the US government should not rush in with investment in new tools.

"When huge breaches are disclosed, the knee jerk reaction is often to buy more tools. But the threats faced can be addressed by many organisations just by operationalising the controls they currently have and continuously monitoring the effectiveness of them to ensure they are working optimally," he said.

"Breaches often occur not by some complex and esoteric method, but more through the lack of foundational controls working well to identify weaknesses and addressing them quickly and effectively."

Protecting against cyber attackers if not just the responsibility of security teams, with security experts highlighting the need for a fundamental rethink of security strategies in order to prevent further breaches. This means vastly improving awareness of the threats to staff.

"Security professionals, IT specialists and corporate users need to learn a new language for cyber resilience," said at Axelos.

"Traditional approaches to raising cyber awareness and thus changing behaviours has been 'one size fits all', dominated by messages that simply say 'don't do this or that' or are full of technical jargon. It should hardly come as a surprise that users don't engage.

"Cyber resilience relies on staff understanding not just the basic principles of security, but why those principles are important to their role, and why they play a key role in preventing incidents and attacks."