You may never have heard of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the US, but that doesn’t mean foreign agents haven’t. The agency tasked with protecting America’s nukes and nuclear secrets has disclosed that its computer systems are attacked as many as 10 million times a day.
According to the department’s head, Thomas D’Agostino, the NNSA’s security systems are constantly being probed by all sorts of hackers. “They’re from other countries’ [governments], but we also get fairly sophisticated non-state actors as well,” he told US News. “The [nuclear] labs are under constant attack, the Department of Energy is under constant attack.”
Thankfully, the agency’s security systems are already pretty robust, however, “of the security significant events, less than one hundredth of a per cent can be categorised as successful attacks against the Nuclear Security Enterprise computing infrastructure,” D’Agostino continued.
That means that there could be as many as a 1000 attacks, every day, that successfully penetrate these systems, but that number is unlikely. “The numbers are kind of inflated on that front,” Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says. He thinks much of that traffic is from botnets “constantly scanning the internet looking for vulnerabilities”.
Luckily, there is no known malware that can remotely activate a missile silo and jump-start World War VI (read: so bad we skipped III, IV and V). Silos are protected by an “Air Gap” in that they are sequestered from the rest of the internet and run on a smaller, dedicated network. However, once inside, hackers can steal information, as they did in Oak Ridge National Laboratory last April. Intruders made off with several megabytes of classified data in that case.
And the threat of a Stuxnet-style attack is an ever-present concern. “Stuxnet showed that airgapping is not a perfect defence,” Segal says. “Even in secure systems, people stick in their thumb drives, they go back and forth between computers. They can find vulnerabilities that way. If people put enough attention to it, they can possibly be penetrated.”
The NNSA was formed in 2000 in response to the Wen Ho Lee spying scandal in which sensitive nuclear intel was passed along to the Chinese. This sub-agency of the Department of Energy is tasked with moving and recovering nuclear material around the country, and operates with a $US9 billion budget. The agency hopes for a budget increase of $US25 million to better fortify its systems. [NNSA Wiki, US News via The Verge]