The FBI Botched Its DNC Hack Warning in 2016—but Says It Won’t Next Time

By | September 2, 2020


Even so, the growth in the sheer number of hacking incidents means the FBI is notifying far more victims than in the past, says Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker and founder of the security consultancy Rendition Infosec, which often acts as an incident response firm for hacking victims. Williams says that in the last few years, he’s seen a doubling or tripling of the number of calls that his firm gets from hacking victims who were first notified by the FBI. The notifications still often provide just the bare minimum of information about the breach—such as the FBI’s observation that a computer on the victim’s network connected to a known malicious server—and victims are expected to call in their own incident response consultants to kick the hackers out, with little assistance from the FBI itself.

But Williams also says he’s found that the bureau now notifies victims sooner after its agents detect a breach; in years past, the FBI would sometimes warn victims only that they had been the victim of an intrusion, often well after the fact. “We’re getting more information on the front side,” says Williams. “Before it was commonly, ‘we can’t tell you exactly when and we don’t know if it’s still going on, but you should know.'”

By some accounts, at least, the scandalous failure of communication that allowed Russian hackers run wild in the DNC’s networks is far less likely to occur today. One DNC official told WIRED that the organization has had regular meetings with FBI agents since 2016; if another incident occurs, the two organizations would already have relationships between senior officials on both sides. “Basically we’ve solved this problem and have really good, clear channels of communication,” the DNC official wrote in an email.

Dmitri Alperovitch, the former CTO of Crowdstrike, which handled the incident response for the DNC’s 2016 breach and many other incidents of state-sponsored hacking, agrees that the FBI’s practices have changed—specifically that it’s taking more care to reach senior executives or officials who will take its warnings seriously. Alperovitch points out that the FBI actually warned the DNC within days of the Russian hackers’ first breaching its network. The problem, he says, was that the agents working the case had settled for a warning to a low-level staffer. “They should have reached out to higher ups,” Alperovitch wrote in a message to WIRED. “I do see them going higher up the chain these days, so yeah, I think it’s better.”

Held for Ransom

Elections aside, the epidemic of ransomware hitting US companies has also forced the FBI to improve and accelerate its warnings to hacking victims. For some of those cases, says special agent Tyson Fowler, the FBI has developed a so-called “emergency lead notification” process that bypasses the bureau’s usual internal consultations and immediately notifies a cybersecurity-focused agent in a field office who can warn a victim, hopefully before the hackers deliver their ransomware payload. “We’re leaning forward in terms of notifying victims as soon as possible and skipping all those steps,” says Fowler.

In one case in February, for instance, Fowler says he learned of a ransomware-focused intrusion into a Georgia-based multinational company’s network and, by the end of the day, had reached the CEO of the company to warn about the impending attack. The company took part of its network offline, disrupting the hackers’ access to their malware, Fowler says. “You have what could have been an extinction level event for the company, and we were able to avoid the financial impact and the privacy impact just by the quick response,” says Kevvie Fowler, an incident responder with Deloitte whom the company brought in to help remediate the breach.

None of that renewed urgency in victim notification guarantees that hackers won’t outrun defenders anyway. They may, in fact, be learning to operate faster inside of victim networks as the pace of response quickens. But at least in cases where the FBI gets wind of an ongoing intrusion, the period of free rein they enjoy before being hunted by network responders may no longer last for months, as in the DNC hack, but in days or hours.


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