An unnamed White House official, the Washington Free Beacon reports, revealed hackers from China attempted to infiltrate a sensitive but unclassified network that includes the United States government's nuclear command system earlier this month. Not only that but the official said the type of attack experienced by the system is not considered infrequent.
Politico reported Monday morning the White House confirming the attack.
The Free Beacon reports a national security official saying it was a spear phishing attack, which uses malicious emails to try to gain information leading the hacker into a system, against White House Military Office. The Free Beacon describes it as "one of the most brazen cyber attacks against the United States." The official interviewed by the Free Beacon assured them though that the attempted breach did not impact classified parts of the system:
“In this instance the attack was identified, the system was isolated, and there is no indication whatsoever that any exfiltration of data took place,” the official said.
Politico reported a White House official re-affirming that none of the systems were actually compromised and no information was stolen. Politico also describes the White House as seeking to "downplay" the report by the Free Beacon.
Business Insider also points out that a phishing attack is not really a "hack" as it uses an email to trick the recipient into providing information that could lead directly into a system. It also states that given that the network in the attempted hack was unclassified, it is "probably not as bad as it sounds." Parts of the system including nuclear commands would be considered classified and encrypted.
Still, the Free Beacon includes another unnamed source, which it describes as a "former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the work of the office," saying that given this attack was on "the most sensitive office in the U.S. government” a breach of the system could "cause grave strategic damage to the United States.”
The Free Beacon also takes the story to security experts who were named on the record but were unaware of the incident:
Former McAffee cyber threat researcher Dmitri Alperovitch said he was unaware of the incident, but noted: “I can tell you that the Chinese have an aggressive goal to infiltrate all levels of U.S. government and private sector networks.”
“The White House network would be the crown jewel of that campaign so it is hardly surprising that they would try their hardest to compromise it,” said Alperovictch, now with the firm Crowdstrike.
As Alperovictch pointed out, this is not the first time the Chinese have been blamed for breaches in the United States. Last year, TheBlaze reported 49 chemical and defense companies had seen attacks on their system from China. Security analysts said last year that hacks from China can be tracked back to 12 groups backed its government. TheBlaze has also reported about the Chinese hacking into NASA's system and taking control, for a short time, of its Jet Propulsion Lab.