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US State department rooted by 0-day Word attack

An accident waiting to happen

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A virus attack aimed at US State Department computers last May penetrated government networks after a worker in Asia opened a contaminated email.

The malware inside exploited an unpatched Microsoft Word vulnerability to spread. Some weeks later government investigators discovered multiple instances of infection, informed Microsoft, and cut off the State Department's internet connections throughout eastern Asia.

The shut-off left US government offices in the region without net access in the tense weeks prior to missile tests by North Korea. The State Department brought the infection under control in early July. Microsoft issued a patch to protect against the attack on August 8, around ten weeks after the original attack.

The contaminated email at the centre of the attack included a Microsoft Word document with material from a congressional speech about Asian diplomacy. This concealed code that used a vulnerability in Word to commandeer Windows PCs and open a back door to unknown hackers. The attack was reportedly detected quickly and kept under control during an investigation. But when security experts realised that the compromise had spread deeper, resulting in the siphoning off of some data, State Department security experts pulled the plug on east Asian offices.

Details of the attack emerged this week before a cybersecurity hearing before the House of Congress's Homeland Security subcommittee. Donald Reid, a senior security coordinator for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said that a "limited amount" of US government data was obtained by unnamed hackers as a result of the attack, AP reports. Reid is among security experts due to testify on the effect and response to the attack later on Thursday.

US government representatives are refusing to be drawn on the likely identity and motive of attackers. But external security experts speculate that the sophistication of the attack suggests foreign government might have been involved. Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said the attack was an accident waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before "Congress would wake up and discover that the federal government had been deeply and broadly penetrated by cyber attackers from other countries," he said.

Paller added that it's been apparent for sometime that US government cybersecurity defences are inadequate. "Much of the money they have spent on FISMA [security audit] reports has been wasted; and should have been spent on actual security." ®

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