Chinese hackers seized control of NASA computers

Hackers targeted NASA computers, successfully gained access to employee credentials, and took control of systems at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CNN reported on Friday. Paul K. Martin, the agency’s inspector general, cited one case in a report issued this week in which intruders from China-based IP addresses gained “full system access” to change or delete sensitive files and user accounts for “mission-critical” systems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “In other words, the attackers had full functional control over these networks,” Martin said. In an earlier attack, hackers stole credentials of roughly 150 NASA employees. The agency reported that it was targeted with 47 “advanced persistent threats” in 2011, 13 of which successfully compromised NASA’s computers. Read on for more.

“The individuals or nations behind these attacks are typically well organized and well funded and often target high-profile organizations like NASA,” Martin said in his report titled “NASA Cybersecurity: An Examination of the Agency’s Information Security.” The agency reported a total of 5,408 incidents “that resulted in the installation of malicious software on or unauthorized access to its systems” in 2010 and 2011. “These incidents spanned a wide continuum from individuals testing their skill to break into NASA systems, to well-organized criminal enterprises hacking for profit, to intrusions that may have been sponsored by foreign intelligence services seeking to further their countries’ objectives,” Martin wrote.

Over the past five years, NASA has conducted 16 investigations that have led to arrests in China, Great Britain, Italy, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Turkey and Estonia. These security breaches have cost the agency more than $7 million and “have affected thousands of NASA computers, caused significant disruption to mission operations, and resulted in the theft of export-controlled and otherwise sensitive data,” according to the agency.

NASA has been plagued with numerous thefts of agency-issued mobile computing devices over the years. Between April 2009 and April 2011, 48 devices were reported lost or stolen, which may have led to sensitive algorithms and data landing in hackers’ hands. “For example, the March 2011 theft of an unencrypted NASA notebook computer resulted in the loss of the algorithms used to command and control the International Space Station,” Martin noted.

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