Data hack at NASA leads to potential exposure of space agency staff’s personal details

The BBC has reported that NASA has sent an e-mail to members of staff containing a warning that hackers may have stolen their personal data. The hacking episode is said to have occurred last October. NASA waited almost two months to notify employees. The organisation has stated that an unknown intruder gained access to one of its servers storing the personal data of current and former employees. Social security numbers may have been compromised. Similar security breaches at the US space agency happened  back in 2011 and 2016.

Dr Guy Bunker, senior vice-president of products at data security company Clearswift, has now evaluated the episode, looked at the next steps for NASA and also at how the organisation can prevent such attacks in the future, especially so as it appears the space agency hasn’t been able to learn from previous hacks.

“The first thing to note here is that this attack occurred in the USA and impacted US employees, so the rules and regulations governing data breaches are different to those in the UK and Europe,” observed Bunker. “In the USA and in some instances elsewhere, there’s an approach adopted which is to leave the attackers alone when first discovered in order to better understand exactly what they’ve done to the network. In this way, specialist cyber forensic analysts can watch to see all the activity rather than just the obvious. This ensures that, when they close off the vulnerability, they can also close off any other back doors which might have been installed. It also means that more facts on the episode in question can be communicated.”

Bunker continued: “Of course, while this works well for the organisation, the employees involved are placed at an increased risk for a prolonged time. The sooner you know there’s a potential problem, the sooner monitoring services can be set up to watch for fraudulent use of bank details, etc. Within the US, compromised social security numbers in conjunction with other personal details put the individual at high risk of identity theft.”

In conclusion, Bunker informed Risk Xtra: “Unfortunately for NASA, this isn’t its first breach and questions will be asked as to why this has happened again, and what went wrong in the mitigation plans put in place after the previous two breaches. The increasingly sophisticated IT environment means that there are increased opportunities for vulnerabilities to be found by cyber attackers. On that basis, there needs to be increased vigilance on systems, their interconnectivity and data flows.”

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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