Defense anti-hacking office goes on the offensive

Three years ago, a series of coordinated attacks on Defense Department computer networks set off a search for security vulnerabilities in the Pentagon's information systems. The attacks, called "Moonlight Maze," mystified investigators, who feared they might be linked to the theft of sensitive Defense data.

Such attacks keep the members of Defense's Joint Task Force-Computer Network Operations (JTF-CNO) up at night. In fact, task force investigators still haven't solved the Moonlight Maze puzzle. Analysts think the attacks originated in Russia--but aren't certain.

"The truth is we don't know who is behind Moonlight Maze," said Navy Capt. Robert West, special assistant to the commander of JTF-CNO. The task force is dedicated to both protecting Defense's computer networks and developing attack strategies to conduct information warfare against U.S. adversaries. The task force has operated with relative anonymity for the past three years. It was created in 1998 in the wake of "Solar Sunrise," a series of attacks on Pentagon computers that originally appeared to have been perpetrated by a number of small governments sympathetic to the plight of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Solar Sunrise turned out to be the work of a couple of high school kids in California, West said. In October 1999, JTF-CNO was transferred to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Space Command. In April of this year, the task force was handed the responsibility for conducting attacks in coordination with U.S. land, air and sea operations meant to deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy enemy computer capabilities. When the task force was new, it looked only for large, organized efforts against individual Defense networks. But it found that while almost all of the malicious attacks on military networks were criminal in nature, they weren't the work of organized agents working for foreign governments, and therefore didn't constitute a threat to national security. Distinguishing between criminal activity and national security threats at the beginning of an attack is impossible, West said. As a result, representatives from each of the military's criminal investigative commands work alongside task force personnel. "We have a full-time cybercop operation here," he said. "Cops investigate, get warrants and can do things no one else can." The job is difficult because of the peculiarities of the Internet. "It's so hard to get attribution online," West said. JTF-CNO can follow the network footsteps of a hacker back to Web sites all over the world. It can even pinpoint the computer from which attacks have originated. However, finding a motive is difficult.

"This is an area that's got cops written all over it-you never know what's in the brain of an individual behind malicious activity," West said.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.