Oak Ridge hit by cyber attack

An advanced persistent threat cyber attack forced Oak Ridge National Laboratory to shut down all Internet access and email systems.


An advanced persistent threat cyber attack forced Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to shut down all Internet access and email systems over the weekend.

Those restrictions will remain until lab officials and others investigating the attack are sure everything is back to normal, said ORNL Director Thom Mason early this week.

Mason said he expects email functions may come back online on a limited basis, with no attachments allowed and restrictions on length.

“We made the decision (around midnight Friday last week) to close down the connection to the Internet to make sure there was no data exfiltrated from the lab while we got the system cleaned up,” he said.

The lab’s cyber specialists had been monitoring the attack and recommended further action after it looked like efforts were under way to remove data from ORNL systems, Mason said.

Mason said the APT threat at ORNL is similar to attacks in recent times on Google, security company RSA, and other government institutions and corporations.

“In this case, it was initiated with phishing email, which led to the download of some software that took advantage of a ‘zero day exploit,’ a vulnerability for which there is no patch yet issued,” he said. The vulnerability involved Internet Explorer, he said.

Mason said the lab has not, to this point, detected any large-scale exfiltration of data, and the decision to shut down Internet access was to prevent any information to exit the building or to eliminate anything similar to a 2007 cyber attack at ORNL in which thieves stole large amounts of data. Following that event, the lab sent 12,000 letters to former lab visitors, informing them a thief may have stolen their Social Security numbers (although there were no subsequent reports of identity thefts or major problems).

Mason said they confiscated and quarantined some computers. He also confirmed the phishing email messages came in looking as though they were from the lab’s human resource department.

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