Justice dept, courts among massive US hack

Eric Tucker and Frank Bajak
·2-min read

The Justice Department and the federal court system have disclosed that they were among the dozens of US government agencies and private businesses compromised by a massive cyber-espionage campaign that US officials have linked to elite Russia hackers.

The extent of the damage was unclear.

The department on Wednesday said that 3 per cent of its Microsoft Office 365 email accounts were potentially affected, but did not say to whom those accounts belonged. There are no indications that classified systems were affected, the agency said.

Office 365 isn't just email but a collaborative computing environment, which means that shared documents were also surely accessed, said Dmitri Alperovitch, former chief technical officer of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.

Separately, the Administrative Office of US Courts informed federal judicial bodies across the nation that the courts' nationwide case management system was breached, potentially giving the hackers access to sealed court documents.

The Justice Department said that on December 24 it detected "previously unknown malicious activity" linked to the broader intrusions of federal agencies revealed earlier that month, according to a statement from spokesman Marc Raimondi.

Separately, the court office said on its website that "an apparent compromise" of the US judiciary's case management and electronic case file system was under investigation.

The Department of Homeland Security was scouring the system, it said, and cited a particular risk to sealed court filings, whose disclosure could jeopardise active criminal investigations.

"The potential reach is vast. The actual reach is probably significant," said a federal court official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to disclose the information.

The official confirmed that the scope of the compromise was national but it was not clear how widespread.

On Tuesday, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies formally implicated Russia in the intrusions, calling them part of a suspected intelligence gathering operation.

President Donald Trump had previously questioned that consensus, suggesting without foundation that China could be to blame.

The hacking campaign was extraordinary in scale, with the intruders stalking through government agencies including the Treasury and Commerce departments, defence contractors and telecommunications companies for months by the time the breach was discovered.

Experts say that gave the foreign agents ample time to collect data that could be highly damaging to US national security, although the scope of the breaches and exactly what information was sought is unknown.

An estimated 18,000 organisations were seeded with malicious code that piggybacked on popular network-management software from an Austin, Texas, company called SolarWinds.

But only a subset are believed to have been compromised. Tuesday's statement said that fewer than 10 federal government agencies have so far been identified as having been hacked.