Hackers from China invade federal weather systems; NOAA fails to report attack to law enforcement
WASHINGTON — Hackers from China breached the federal weather network recently, forcing cybersecurity teams to seal off data vital to disaster planning, aviation, shipping and scores of other crucial uses, officials said.
The intrusion occurred in late September, but officials gave no indication that they had a problem until Oct. 20, according to three people familiar with the hack and the reaction by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, which includes the National Weather Service. Even then, NOAA did not say its systems were compromised.
Officials said that the agency did not notify the proper authorities when it learned of the attack.
NOAA officials declined to discuss the suspected source of the attack, whether it affected classified data and the delay in notification. NOAA said publicly in October that it was doing “unscheduled maintenance” on its network, without saying a computer hack made that necessary.
In a statement released Wednesday, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen acknowledged the hacks and said “incident response began immediately.” He said that all systems were working again and that forecasts were accurately delivered to the public. Smullen declined to answer questions beyond his statement, citing an investigation into the attack.
But the agency confirmed to U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, that China was behind the attack, the congressman said. Wolf has a longstanding interest in cybersecurity and asked NOAA about the incident after an inquiry from The Washington Post.
“NOAA told me it was a hack and it was China,” said Wolf, who scolded the agency for not disclosing the attack “and deliberately misleading the American public in its replies.”
“They had an obligation to tell the truth,” Wolf said. “They covered it up.”
Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser said his office was not notified of the breach until Nov. 4, well after he believes the hack occurred. He said that is a violation of agency policy requiring any security incident to be reported to his office within two days of discovering the problem.
“We’re in the process of looking into the matter, including why NOAA did not comply with the requirements to notify law enforcement about the incident,” Zinser said.
Wolf said he did not know whether the breach involved classified material or what information was accessed.
Confirmation of the NOAA hack followed an admission Monday by the Postal Service that a suspected Chinese attack — also in September — compromised data of 800,000 employees, from letter carriers on up through the postmaster general.
NOAA officials would not say whether the attack removed material or inserted malicious software in its system, which is used by civilian and military forecasters in the United States as well as feeding weather models at the main centers for Europe and Canada.
The hack may have been aimed less at manipulating weather data than finding an opening in a U.S. system to exploit, said Jacob Olcott, a cybersecurity consultant with Good Harbor Security Risk Management and former Senate staffer on cybersecurity legislation.