Justice Department officials did not anticipate that a phony e-mail sent to employees of the Bureau of Prisons to test their vulnerability to Internet scams would circulate to other agencies and cause alarm.
"It was what it was, but we certainly would not do this again," said Vance Hitch, chief information officer at Justice, during a Feb. 4 interview with Government Executive. "If there's anyone else who might by any implication be involved, we would need to coordinate with them. Our intent was that this would be contained within DoJ, and in fact in one component."
The department sent e-mails to Bureau of Prisons employees on Jan. 25 informing them that if they had lost more than 30 percent of the value of their Thrift Savings Plan accounts since Oct. 1, 2008, they could register online for a bailout that was available until Jan. 31, 2009. The e-mail was signed "Thrift Savings Plan Account Coordinator" and sent from the address email@example.com. At 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, Justice deactivated the Web site to which the e-mail directed recipients to for the advertised bailout. Shortly thereafter, the department informed Bureau of Prisons employees that the e-mail was a security test and not a genuine scam.
Justice did not coordinate the security test in advance with the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, the body that oversees the TSP.
Hitch said employees in other Justice agencies were warned about the test. Although the fake Web site was active for only a short time, the e-mail had circulated quickly to other agencies. Employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Economic Development Administration at the Commerce Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the Transportation Department, and the Government Accountability Office recently told Government Executive that they received the e-mail or warnings that they should not respond to it, but not necessarily information that the message was phony. Last week, the General Services Administration alerted the TSP board to the e-mail.
"One thing that happens in our society is that everyone spreads these e-mails around," Hitch said. "We certainly have gotten this message in spades, and we're working to prevent this in the future, to keep that from spreading it around." But he emphasized that the Web site was never "dangerous. It's not active."
When the TSP board learned about the incident on Jan. 28, officials still were unaware that the e-mail was bogus. The board immediately moved to shut down what it believed was a genuine attempt to scam federal employees, working with a contractor and the Homeland Security Department to monitor the Web site and try to deactivate it. On Jan. 30, a TSP official expressed frustration that Justice had not alerted the board about the training exercise.
Hitch acknowledged that lapse on Wednesday.
"There wasn't appropriate coordination with the TSP," he said. "The TSP happened to be included in one of the scenarios. They [the board] absolutely should have been contacted ahead of time, and they weren't. We have modified our protocols to make sure that doesn't happen in the future. As soon as we learned TSP got their first inquiry about this, we started working with them."
But Hitch defended the concept behind the idea, saying such "social engineering" tests are an important part of the department's efforts to educate its employees about using e-mail and the Internet wisely. Justice employees undergo mandatory annual training on information technology security issues. Hitch said they receive regular warnings about cybersecurity when they log on to their computers, though they are not warned about upcoming tests.
Though he would not disclose how many employees attempted to access the Web site, Hitch said employees demonstrated more awareness of phishing schemes during the latest test than they had previously, and fewer fell for the ruse.
"We have to do the education, and we have to do some of this social engineering testing to make sure we get at this vector," Hitch said. "We do have evidence that things are getting better."