Hacking governments and government agencies has become an increasingly concerning issue in the modern digital age. High profile breaches of government systems demonstrate how vulnerable even the most secure networks can be to intrusion by malicious actors. Understanding the methods hackers use to infiltrate government networks is key to improving security and preventing future attacks.
What is the motivation for hacking governments?
Hackers are driven to target government systems for a variety of reasons:
- Cyber espionage – Stealing classified information for strategic advantage or to sell to foreign governments
- Hacktivism – Breaking into networks to protest government policies or actions
- Financial gain – Accessing financial and personal data that can be monetized
- Chaos/Anarchy – Disrupting government operations and undermining trust in institutions
Of these motivations, cyber espionage conducted on behalf of foreign governments poses the greatest threat. However, hacktivists and cyber criminals also successfully breach government defenses on a regular basis.
What methods do hackers use to target government systems?
Hackers utilize a variety of techniques to infiltrate secure government networks:
Phishing involves sending fraudulent emails designed to trick users into handing over login credentials or unknowingly installing malware. Spear phishing targets specific high value users with personalized emails. Government employees are prone to phishing due to high email volume.
Social engineering relies on manipulating people into providing access to systems or confidential information. This could involve impersonating IT staff to obtain passwords or convince an employee to insert a infected USB flash drive.
Unpatched Software Vulnerabilities
Failure to promptly patch known software security holes provides an open door for hackers. This has been a factor in breaches of government servers using outdated software.
Third Party Access
Hackers can infiltrate government networks by first hacking third party contractors and IT providers with more lax security. This “supply chain attack” grants a backdoor into better protected government systems.
Publicly Exposed Systems
Government servers and databases that are visible on the public internet can be scanned for vulnerabilities and provide an easy first step for intruders.
Government employees with malicious intent can abuse internal access to exfiltrate data or assist external hackers. Most major government breaches involve some element of insider wrongdoing.
Zero Day Exploits
Unknown software vulnerabilities for which no patch exists yet can provide government hackers access to target systems before defenders are able to address the security gap.
Supply Chain Compromise
Injecting malware into computer hardware or software during manufacturing can open hard to detect backdoors. State-sponsored hackers have compromised government IT suppliers to enable access.
What high profile government breaches have occurred?
Some notable government cyber attacks include:
U.S. Office of Personnel Management (2015)
Chinese hackers compromised OPM networks and extracted sensitive records on over 20 million U.S. government employees and applicants. Likely conducted for intelligence purposes.
U.S. Postal Service Breach (2014)
A hack exposed personal data on over 800,000 USPS employees. Perpetrated by Chinese state hackers looking for intelligence.
U.S. Election Systems (2016)
Russian hackers probed voter registration databases and software systems in dozens of U.S. states ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
White House Data Breach (2014)
Hackers working for the Russian government were able to access internal White House computer networks, potentially gaining access to sensitive communications and documents.
German Parliament Hack (2015)
A cyber attack on Germany’s Bundestag resulted in large amounts of data being stolen. The attack was attributed to the Russian hacking group APT28.
Ukraine Power Grid Attack (2015)
Hackers were able to shut down parts of Ukraine’s power grid temporarily by compromising industrial control systems, leaving over 200,000 residents without electricity.
What can governments do to improve security?
Governments face unique security challenges but there are steps they can take to enhance defenses:
- Implement strict cyber security standards across all agencies
- Provide updated training to teach employees how to spot phishing and social engineering
- Deploy robust email security and gateway screening tools
- Segment and firewall networks to limit lateral movement after breaches
- Enforce multi-factor authentication for all remote access and admin logins
- Continuously patch and upgrade software across platforms
- Monitor servers and networks for anomalies to detect intrusions
- Review third party vendor access and require security guarantees
- Establish clear cyber attack response plans and procedures
Adopting frameworks like NIST 800-53 for IT systems security provides government organizations detailed guidance on improving cyber defenses.
Hacking attacks on government systems are increasing in severity as sensitive data and critical infrastructure face growing threats. While no organization can be 100% secure, prioritizing cyber defenses and implementing best practices can help limit the success of future government breaches. Ongoing training of government IT staff combined with testing security and responding to incidents is crucial to counter the sophisticated techniques hackers employ. With improvements in security posture and vigilance, government agencies can mitigate potential attacks and recover when intrusions inevitably occur.