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60 Minutes covers cybersecurity threats, federal data breach

Yesterday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes devoted its opening story to cybersecurity threats to critical infrastructure in the United States, including the power grid, financial systems and military information systems. Threatpost, the information security blog associated with Kaspersky Labs, has embedded the 60 Minutes segment on cyberterrorism.

In an interview with correspondent Steve Kroft, cybersecurity expert Jim Lewis calls a federal data breach in 2007 “our electronic Pearl Harbor.” In the transcript of the segment, available at, Lewis said. “Some unknown foreign power, and honestly, we don’t know who it is, broke into the Department of Defense, to the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, probably the Department of Energy, probably NASA. They broke into all of the high-tech agencies, all of the military agencies, and downloaded terabytes of information.”

Lewis also spoke about the penetration of U.S. military networks, specifically the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Lewis believes the data breach was accomplished by foreign spies leaving corrupted thumbnail drives in locations where U.S. military personnel would be likely to pick them up. When a drive was inserted into a CENTCOM computer, a malicious application on the drive opened a back door for hackers to access the system. According to Lewis, the Pentagon has now banned thumbnail drives. (David Mortman offered advice last year about whether enterprises should also ban USB drives.)

60 Minutes has also posted several short video interviews online that offer more time with Lewis, including “Hacking the ATMs,” “Hacking the DOD” and “The Holy Grail,” where Lewis talks about the security of the financial system. In “Online Jihad,” Shawn Henry, assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, discusses potential cybersecurity threats from Islamic fundamentalism.

The report from 60 Minutes coincides with our own coverage. Growing cybersecurity threats to critical infrastructure and the electric grid have put a new focus on NERC regulations, as well as FISMA, warned NERC’s chief security officer, Michael Assante. Melissa Hathaway, former acting senior director for cyberspace for the National Security and Homeland Security councils, also spoke of the need for better public-private cooperation at the same cybersecurity panel in Washington that Assante spoke at last month. And Lewis says that new rules for cyberwar are being defined as the risks grow.

IT security pros and analysts alike know that intrusions, breaches and a growing cybersecurity threat aren’t anything new. Dave Lewis, a veteran security practitioner and blogger, commented that “the overwhelming FUD was troublesome.” Dan Kennedy, CISO at the Praetorian Group, wished that “the FBI would knock off the cloak-and-dagger routine when they’re asked a follow up question.”

Regardless of where you stand on the 60 Minutes report, one fact remains clear: The White House still hasn’t appointed a cybersecurity coordinator.

As Marc Ambinder observed at, “last night’s 60 Minutes feature on cybersecurity may add a sense of political urgency to the debate” about a cybersecurity coordinator.

Shane Harris, also writing about the broadcast of the segment on cybersecurity, also put the 60 Minutes report in perspective. “Although the piece didn’t make much news, it was news to most Americans. Full disclosure, I know the producer, Graham Messick, and while I don’t have any special insights into how he approached the subject, I think it’s fair to say that his work will change the cyber security debate in some fundamental ways.”

Harris wonders if the report could have an effect on legislation and subsequent regulatory compliance, like FISMA reform associated with further iterations of the ICE Act. “There are a number of bills pending in Congress that threaten to set requirements on companies to disclose the holes in their networks,” he wrote. “Those bills just got a major push last night. All in all, while 60 Minutes didn’t exactly blow the lid off anything last night, they have elevated the attention of this issue to new heights. That alters the political dynamics significantly.”

UPDATE: Wired Magazine has reported that the blackouts in Brazil in 2007 were “actually the result of a utility company’s negligent maintenance of high voltage-insulators on two transmission lines,” not computer hackers. 60 Minutes relied upon “unnamed sources” in claiming that the two-day outage described by Kroft in the Atlantic state of Espirito Santo “was triggered by hackers targeting a utility company’s control systems.”

Now, Wired reports the following:

The utility company involved, Furnas Centrais Elétricas, told Threat Level on Monday, it “has no knowledge of hackers acting in Furnas’ power transmission system.”

Brazilian government officials disputed the report over the weekend, and Raphael Mandarino Jr., director of the Homeland Security Information and Communication Directorate, told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that he’s investigated the claims and found no evidence of hacker attacks, adding that Brazil’s electric control systems are not directly connected to the internet.

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