First Look

How one Russian group exposed the soft underbelly of federal cyber defenses

The Office of Management and Budget asked agencies to submit data about how they are protecting their domains from distributed denial of service attacks after a...

In early November, at least two agencies fell victim to a cyber attack from a group based in Russia.

The hacking group Killnet took responsibility on Twitter for taking down sites run by the Commerce Department and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security.

While the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack was more of a headache than anything else, it spurred the Office of Management and Budget to relook at agency protections against a type of attack that experts say is tried often, but is rarely successful any longer. But, at the same time, has re-emerged on the threat landscape poking at federal IT’s soft underbelly.

The Federal Chief Information Security Officer’s Office and CISA issued a data call about 10 days after the DDoS attack asking for details on how agencies are protecting against these threats and asking agency chief information officers to validate the domains they are protecting.

Federal and industry cyber executives say the concern isn’t so much this one successful attack against Commerce and CISA, but understanding how well agencies are prepared against DDoS attacks that have been rising in Eastern Europe at an alarming rate and against soft targets like airports in the U.S.

“Our view is it did appear that the activity was starting to target the U.S. government, so if that’s the case, let’s be prudent and take this opportunity to fast track some efforts that were underway already to start doing automated discovery and confirmation of content delivery networks and DDoS mitigation protections across all federally owned websites,” an OMB official told Federal News Network. “We have a general view of the current state, and there’s pretty good coverage across federal government in this space. We know that anecdotally from prior data calls and from conversations with CISOs and CIOs at CIO and CISO council meetings. But this is new and different. CISA has created a tool and capability so let’s get, like, full veracity here and make sure agencies have a central viewpoint of all the websites that you own, operate and are responsible for.”

Impact on sites was minimal

The November attack that Commerce and CISA faced resulted in no operational impact, federal executives say.

Commerce’s main website came down for several hours, government sources say. A Commerce official said they were still doing a root cause analysis and didn’t offer any further details about the attack.

At CISA, the DDoS attack took down the front end of the Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII) Program user website for a few hours, according to internal emails obtained by Federal News Network.

Other agencies, including the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Treasury Department, also faced DDoS attempts by Killnet to take down websites, but were unsuccessful.

A CISA official told Federal News Network that the DDoS attack had no operational impact and only impacted the external facing site.

“The application was still up. The PulseSecure server that sits in front of [the site] went down because it couldn’t handle the traffic load,” the official said.

Another CISA official described the attack as a “general resource exhaustion attack,” where the bad actor is sending too much traffic for the site to handle at once.

The problem of growing technical debt

The attack highlights a bigger issues agencies continue to face: Old technology that either isn’t patched because they don’t know about it, known as shadow IT, or they can’t afford to replace it because of budget limitations.

OMB said in 2016 agency technical debt is more than $7 billion. OMB, agency CIOs, industry and some lawmakers continue to ring the alarm bells about this amount of technical debt as it raises the risk level agencies face from cyber attack.

CISA, the agency, as opposed to the policy shop that puts out binding operational directives and other guidance, is no different.

Early indications from CISA internal emails obtained by Federal News Network showed that the attack found success because the agency was using legacy servers that were unpatched.

“CISA support has identified the Pulse server is currently running on old codes. Issue has been escalated to Akamai engineers to replace CISA old code on Pulse Secures,” according to a Nov. 4 internal email.

The first CISA official said analysis later on determined the root cause was not old code running on the servers, and the agency had all configurations up to date. The official didn’t explain what had happened, except the attack overwhelmed the external facing site.

But one federal cyber official familiar with the incident questioned why CISA would send out an email saying what the problem is if they weren’t sure or were guessing. The official said in the first hours of a cyber incident either you know what the problem is and you tell your team, or you say you don’t know what the problem is because it could cause other problems.

“I don’t think a CISO would send that note unless it’s not true, as communications during an incident are key. Everyone is fine with not knowing what happened, but if you know you should state it. I think they knew exactly what was wrong and their network and security operations center confirmed it,” said the official who requested anonymity in order to talk about the cyber attack. “Agencies were told to get off PulseSecure more than a year ago because they had a known vulnerability. I think they were shocked it was even there because they should’ve gotten rid of it because they knew about it being a problem.”

The official and other experts called the Killnet attack basic and not much better than a “script kiddie.”

The federal official said Killnet was probably surprised the DDoS attack worked at all.

“DDoS are not complicated attacks. They are script driven. The cloud has enabled DDoS attacks with scale and speed that we haven’t seen before. It’s not highly technical. It’s low rent and this was an opportunity Killnet took advantage of,” the official said. “This will happen again. I’d expect Killnet to come back.”

To be fair, it was the weekend before the mid-term election, so many experts give CISA credit for raising awareness at the time.

The data indicates Killnet, or whomever, will be back, which is part of the reason for OMB’s data call. In fact, CISA sent out a governmentwide email on Nov. 4, the day of the successful attack against agencies, warning against a possible spike in DDoS activity.

“We wanted to highlight increased DDoS activity being reported against federal agencies. Several agencies have confirmed impact from this activity. If you are experiencing any DDoS activity, we ask that you please report it to CISA via standard reporting mechanisms and share any relevant information from that activity,” the email, which Federal News Network obtained, stated.

Earlier in October, CISA also updated its DDoS guidance for agencies: Understanding and Responding to Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks and Capacity Enhancement Guide (CEG): Additional DDoS Guidance for Federal Agencies.

Spike in DDoS attacks in Eastern Europe

OMB reported in the fiscal 2021 Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) report to Congress released in September that attrition attacks, which DDoS fall under as a category, accounted for about 1% of all attacks agencies suffered last year. The report states there were 440 known attrition-type attacks last year out of more than 32,000 total incidents.

In the meantime, DDoS activity has picked up massively in Eastern Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Eastern Europe is typically the target about 1%-to-2% of global DDoS attacks; since the invasion, Eastern Europe has been the target of up to 30% of global DDoS attacks, said Patrick Sullivan, the chief technology officer for security strategy for Akamai.

“This represents more than a 1,100% increase in DDoS attacks in Eastern Europe compared to trend lines prior to February 2022. We’ve also seen some of these attacks pack quite a punch, with records broken for the greatest number of packets per second of DDoS attacks in Europe,” he said. “There have been DDoS attacks targeting organizations in the U.S. that have been attributed to organizations that have publicly pledged loyalty to Russia in this conflict. U.S. state and local governments, airports and other industries have been targeted by Killnet. Overall, these are more isolated; we are not seeing the massive increase in activity directed at targets in the U.S. like what we have observed in Eastern Europe.”

And hacking groups will continue to look for soft spots, like an unpatched PulseSecure server.

John Pescatore, the director of emerging security trends at the SANS Institute, said agencies should also be concerned about bad actors using DDoS attacks as a distraction to get the security and network defenders focused on one thing and then attacking somewhere else with something more serious like ransomware.

He said DDoS and other basic attack approaches take advantage of old technology that either agencies don’t know exist or haven’t had the resources to upgrade.

“With the PulseSecure vulnerabilities over the past two years, agencies have been super slow to patch them, and the government was a big chunk of their business. The vulnerabilities are getting exploited in variety of ways,” Pescatore said. “Earlier this year, Akamai put out warning about a middle box reflection attack where something vulnerable is used for dual purposes. It became a man-in-the-middle attack doing TCP reflection attack but also a DDoS attack against the organization that owned that machine. We have no idea why the government has been so slow to patch the PulseSecure servers. The patches were coming out and it was not like they were zero days.”

A more scalable cyber defense

This brings us back, again, to OMB’s data call.

OMB wanted agencies by Nov. 18 to identify and validate all domains, and then CISA will provide agencies with data from its content delivery network (CDN) reporting and mitigation database.

Agencies were then to “review the findings and provide feedback to CISA on how they will mitigate the risk of a sophisticated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against sites not showing a known CDN provider.”

A third CISA official said they are working on a more scalable approach to determine where protections may be lacking and how could they provide visibility to agencies so they can implement mitigations.

“We generally feel that the federal civilian executive branch enterprise is well protected against DDoS, which is why you’re referencing a couple of attacks over a few weeks when there are 10s of 1000s of web apps across government. But we want to make sure there are always stragglers, there is some low hanging fruit. We want to make sure that agency CIOs and CISOs are aware of where protections may be lacking so they can work urgently to put needed protections in place,” the official said about the data call.

The OMB official added CISA’s tool will help identify gaps where maybe agencies thought they had turned coverage on but for whatever reason it isn’t there today.

“It could be something they’ll be able to make a quick fix on or maybe they may have made an intentional decision at one point in time, 10 years ago or whenever, to not have the coverage and maybe in 2022, they should be making a different decision,” the official said. “The interesting thing about these exercises is you learn a lot as you get the data and as you have agencies discover what is going on. From an automated perspective, this is the first time we’re doing it federalwide, so it’s a big exercise. We’re really excited about it because it just feels like, why not take this moment to fast track that and put it on the front burner?”

Whether or not this was a case of CISA, Commerce and possibly other agencies getting caught with their proverbial shields down because of outdated technology or shadow IT, the fact is the ongoing challenges around old and outdated technology and easy ability and low cost to launch DDoS and other basic attacks makes agencies more vulnerable. While the impact of DDoS and similar attacks may not be great, they do cause federal executives a great deal of time, energy and heartburn. This serves as just another reminder that getting out from under technical debt should be the top priority for the administration and agency leaders.


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