Chinese Hackers Hacked the US Weather Systems and Allied Satellite Networks

Chinese Hackers Hacked the US Weather Systems and Satellite Networks

A series of hacks apparently emanating from China with possible state support and targeting American systems have been brought to light after the US Weather System was hacked into. Hackers from China breached the federal weather network recently, forcing cyber security teams to seal off data vital to disaster planning, aviation, shipping and scores of other crucial uses, officials said.

Weather Department Hack kept a secret

The intrusion allegedly occurred in late September, but officials didn’t let out the slightest hint about it till October 20th. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, which includes the weather department also did not make any indications related to the hack. The NOAA had just issued a statement of carrying out unscheduled maintenance in late October which is probably when people first suspected something amiss. They did not even bother to inform the concerned authorities, making it a full fledged cover up.

NOAA officials declined to discuss the suspected source of the attack, whether it affected classified data and the delay in notification of vital weather stats for civilian as well as military use. In a statement released Wednesday, NOAA spokesman Scott Smullen acknowledged the hacks and said “incident response began immediately.” He said 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,  that China was behind the attack, the Republican Congressman from Virginia said in a separate interview. Wolf has a long-standing interest in cyber security and asked NOAA about the incident. “NOAA told me it was a hack and it was China,” said Wolf, who also scolded the agency for not disclosing the attack “and deliberately misleading the American public in its replies.”  This is also the first time a senior US statesman has directly named China as the main perpetrator without getting into any excuses. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration confirms what Congressman Wolf stated candidly without resorting to political correctness.

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, this was 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.

String of intrusions

The admission of the weather network hack by NOAA comes on the heels of another hack, this  one into the US Postal service that compromised data of nearly a million employees. NOAA officials also 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 U.S. and also feeds weather models at the main centers for Europe and Canada. The attack on NOAA joins a spate of cyber espionage on federal systems revealed recently including an attack suspected from Russia that breached unclassified White House computer networks.

NOAA’s National Ice Center Web Site also was down for a week in late October. The center is a partnership with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard to monitor conditions for navigation and possible military usage. The two-day outage skewed the accuracy of National Weather Service long-range forecasts slightly. Experts in the know compare the security used by the NOAA to securing a house with just a thin door.

The working of Weather network

Weather satellites orbit hundreds to thousands of miles above the Earth and offer continuous views of weather systems such as hurricanes, thunderstorms and cold fronts while also measuring temperature and moisture at different altitudes –all crucial bits that get fed into prediction models. To get that information to the public, NOAA makes satellite data and imagery available through the Web as well as file transfer networks for downloads. NOAA satellites “provide critical data for forecasts and warnings that are vital to every citizen and to our economy as a whole,” NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said a year ago.

About the hack

The hacks might not have any connection to the data the systems contain. Experts believe that it might just be hackers trying to get a foot hold into the very secure system through a less secure system.  Jacob Olcott, a cybersecurity consultant now with Good Harbor Security Risk Management and former Senate staffer on cybersecurity legislation said, “The bad guys are increasingly having a hard time getting in the front of these agencies,” he said. “So they figure if I can’t get in the front door, I’d ride along in with someone who has trusted access and maybe ride that connection to bigger agencies.”

Wolf said a hack could steal technical insights or cull isolated information “ that may not look significant until they’re put with something else and then they become valuable. The Chinese are stealing us blind.”

The ripples spread far and wide

“All the operational data sent via NOAA, which is normally an excellent service, was lost,” said Stephen English, head of the satellite section at the European Center for Medium-range Forecasting located in Reading, Great Britain. The center is renowned for running a highly advanced global weather prediction model that during Superstorm Sandy, for example, aided evacuations and preparations in the U.S. when it signaled the storm would hit, not hook out to sea.

Rutgers University Global Snow Lab, which provides daily snow cover updates for researchers and forecasters using a data feed from the Ice Center, posted a notice on its Web site that its reports were incomplete throughout the outage.

Commercial interests also were affected by the breach. Delta Airlines overcame the loss of data it normally incorporates into pilot briefings about aviation hazards, by relying on other weather feeds. Its flying customers were spared trouble by the added work of the airline’s meteorologists and information technology specialists who used alternative sources of information, spokesperson Morgan Durrant said.

The alleged Chinese intrusions into the American cyber assets are getting more and more bold as the days go by. This is the 8th incident in the recent weeks which has a Chinese digital footprint on the attack. The US administration and President Obama is likely to take up this matter with the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit to be held over the weekend in Brisbane.

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