How do hackers hack governments?

Hacking can be defined as gaining unauthorized access to a computer system, network, or data. Over the past few years, there have been a string of high-profile cyber attacks on government systems around the world. Some of the most significant attacks include Russia’s alleged hacking of email systems at the US Democratic National Committee in 2016, the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack that crippled the UK’s National Health Service, and China’s suspected infiltration of commercial networks responsible for airline and hotel booking systems in the US from 2014-2015 (CSIS). With governments increasingly relying on digital infrastructure and networks, hacking poses a serious national security threat. State-sponsored hacking campaigns can collect classified information, disrupt critical systems, undermine public trust, influence elections, and escalate geopolitical conflicts. As cybersecurity continues to be a major priority at all levels of government, understanding how hackers breach government networks is key to strengthening defenses and mitigating risks.


Government and agency computer systems contain sensitive information that make them attractive targets for hackers. There are several key motivations that drive hackers to target governments:

Espionage – Governments contain classified information about national security, defense, foreign policy, and more. State-sponsored hackers or foreign governments may hack to steal this confidential data for intelligence purposes (Why Governments and Agencies Are Targeted by Cyber Attacks – A Deep Dive Into the Motives).

Disruption – Hackers may want to disrupt government operations and services as an act of cyberterrorism or protest. Taking down government websites and networks can erode public trust and cause widespread disruption (Why Government Institutions Are the Perfect Target for Hackers).

Financial gain – Government databases contain sensitive personal and financial data on citizens that can be sold illegally for profit. Hackers may steal and sell this info on the dark web (Why are Government Agencies So Vulnerable to Hacking?).

Hacktivism – Activist hackers often target governments to protest policies or actions. Recent examples include distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against government websites by groups like Anonymous.


Hackers use a variety of methods to breach government systems and networks. Some common methods include:

Phishing: Hackers send fraudulent emails pretending to be from trustworthy sources to trick government employees into revealing passwords or downloading malware. Spear phishing targets specific individuals with tailored messages. Government Hacking

Malware: Malicious software like viruses, worms, and trojans infect government systems often through phishing or by exploiting vulnerabilities. Ransomware encrypts data until a ransom is paid. Major government hack a wake-up call for agencies

Social Engineering: Hackers manipulate employees into handing over confidential info through deception. They may impersonate IT staff or vendors. Government Data Breach Prevention 2023

Exploiting Vulnerabilities: Unpatched weaknesses in software or misconfigured systems allow remote access. State-sponsored hackers research and hoard zero-day exploits.

Notable Hacks

Governments around the world have suffered major cyberattacks and data breaches in recent years. Here are some notable examples:

In 2015, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) suffered a data breach in which over 20 million records of government employees were stolen, including millions of classified documents. This attack is attributed to Chinese state-sponsored hackers who reportedly breached OPM databases to gather intelligence information on US government officials and employees with security clearances.[1]

In 2020, a major supply chain attack hit IT management software company SolarWinds and compromised over 100 US companies and government agencies, including parts of the US Treasury and Commerce Departments. This sophisticated attack, named “Sunburst,” is attributed to Russian foreign intelligence hackers who leveraged trojanized SolarWinds software updates to infiltrate networks and steal data.[2]

During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, numerous cyberattacks were launched against Ukrainian government and military agencies. These included data-wiping malware on hundreds of computers as well as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks intended to disrupt government operations. Security researchers have linked some of these cyber operations to hacker groups associated with Russian intelligence.[3]

These major breaches highlight how government networks are prime targets and require strong defenses and threat intelligence capabilities to detect sophisticated nation-state cyber operations.


Governments use various methods to defend their networks and systems from hacking attempts. Some key prevention tactics include cybersecurity training for employees, conducting risk audits and penetration testing, implementing encryption, and utilizing cyber threat intelligence.

Cybersecurity awareness training helps educate government employees on best practices for handling sensitive data, detecting phishing attempts, and reporting suspicious activity. Annual training ensures personnel stay up-to-date on the latest threats. According to research from GovPilot, regular training significantly reduces the risk of successful attacks.

Governments also routinely audit their networks and systems and conduct penetration tests to find and fix vulnerabilities before hackers can exploit them. Identifying security gaps allows agencies to improve defenses by patching software, closing open ports, and strengthening access controls. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense has red teams that probe networks and uncover weaknesses.

Encryption protects sensitive data by scrambling information so only authorized parties can decipher it. Government agencies are increasingly utilizing encryption for data at rest and in transit. Properly implemented encryption forces hackers to spend significant time and resources trying to break the cryptography used.

Finally, subscribing to cyber threat intelligence services provides real-time information on the latest hacking tools, malware strains, and attacker tactics. By understanding how adversaries operate, governments can fine-tune defenses to detect and stop complex threats. Sharing threat data across agencies and with partners also improves situational awareness.


Governments utilize advanced systems to detect potential intrusions and hacking attempts. Intrusion detection systems (IDS) monitor networks and systems for malicious activity and policy violations (Source). IDS use signatures to recognize threats and can alert security teams in real-time when an attack is underway. According to the Department of Homeland Security, IDS enable rapid identification and responses to cyber threats (Source).

The National Cybersecurity Protection System (NCPS) operated by DHS is one example of a sophisticated IDS employed by the US government. The NCPS analyzes network traffic for anomalies and inspects content for matches to known threats (Source). Behavioral analysis is another detection technique that establishes baselines for normal system and user behavior. Deviations from expected patterns can trigger alerts for investigation of potential intrusions.

Access controls like multi-factor authentication, role-based permissions, and audit logging also aid detection by limiting unauthorized access and providing activity trails for analysis. Robust detection capabilities allow rapid identification of threats so governments can take prompt action to mitigate attacks.


When a cyberattack against a government entity occurs, a swift and coordinated incident response is critical. The goal is to contain the attack, eradicate any foothold the hackers have gained, recover affected systems, and notify the public as appropriate. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the National Cyber Incident Response Plan (NCIRP) outlines the government’s approach to significant cyber incidents, with CISA serving as the central coordinator between public and private sector partners (CISA – Cybersecurity Incident Response).

Containment during an attack involves isolating affected systems, revoking compromised credentials, and preventing lateral movement through the network. CISA may issue emergency directives ordering agencies to take specific actions for containment. Eradication means removing malware, closing vulnerabilities, and purging attacker access to prevent reinfection. Recovery focuses on restoring systems and data from clean backups. Public notification is determined based on the nature and severity of the incident, with care taken not to inadvertently aid the attackers.

Effective incident response relies on preparation, including comprehensive response planning, training, and exercises. According to a GAO review, federal agencies have improved their incident response capabilities but need continued maturation (GAO – Federal Cybersecurity). As cyber threats grow more sophisticated, the government must continue strengthening its ability to quickly isolate, eradicate, and recover from attacks.


Attributing cyber attacks to specific threat actors or nation-states is extremely challenging. According to The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, attribution relies on gathering technical evidence from the attack and combining it with intelligence to identify the responsible party. However, attackers often use proxies, false flags, and shared infrastructure to obscure their identity. Nation-states in particular have sophisticated capabilities to mask their involvement.

Even when attribution is successful, going public with the identity of the attacker carries major geopolitical implications. Governments must weigh the risks of retaliation, escalation, and revealing intelligence sources versus publicly naming and shaming the perpetrators. Tensions between the U.S. and countries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea further complicate matters when attributing state-sponsored attacks. Ultimately, attribution plays a crucial role in cyber deterrence but remains an inexact science with constraints on how governments respond.

International Law

International law faces challenges when applied to cyber attacks by nation states or foreign actors. According to the Tallinn Manual, international law principles like sovereignty, non-intervention, and state responsibility apply to cyberspace ( However, attributing attacks to specific actors is difficult, making enforcement problematic. Prosecuting foreign hackers relies on cooperation between law enforcement agencies globally, which is not always forthcoming if states sponsor or tacitly approve hacking activities.

A key issue is that there is no universally accepted definition of a “cyber attack” in international law, unlike concepts like “armed attack” ( Additionally, cyber attacks often exploit grey areas like influencing elections through propaganda, which does not clearly violate sovereignty. Developing international consensus on norms and definitions for cyberspace remains an ongoing challenge.

The Future

Many cybersecurity experts worry that hacking against governments will only escalate in the future. As this Cyberscoop article notes, the US Cyber Command and NSA have increasingly relied on offensive hacking operations against adversaries, raising concerns about potential retaliation and escalation. Countries must balance offensive capabilities with international cooperation and norms against destabilizing attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Some predict cyber warfare may one day rise to the level of conventional warfare. As digital systems underpin more critical infrastructure, cyberattacks have the potential for physical destruction. Experts warn that escalation could spiral out of control, making international agreements and confidence-building measures essential. With hacking capabilities diffusing globally, governments may restrain cyber operations to avoid setting precedents that empower others. While deterrence requires defensive and offensive capacities, most agree favoring cooperation over conflict serves all parties’ long-term interests.