Hacked networks will need to be burned 'down to the ground'

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FILE - This Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 file photo shows FireEye offices in Milpitas, Calif. Experts say its going to take months to kick elite hackers widely believed to be Russian out of U.S. government networks. The hackers have been quietly rifling through those networks for months in Washingtons worst cyberespionage failure on record. FireEye is the cybersecurity company that discovered the worst-ever intrusion into U.S. agencies and was among the victims. It has already tallied dozens of casualties. Its racing to identify more. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

BOSTON – It’s going to take months to kick elite hackers widely believed to be Russian out of the U.S. government networks they have been quietly rifling through since as far back as March in Washington’s worst cyberespionage failure on record.

Experts say there simply are not enough skilled threat-hunting teams to duly identify all the government and private-sector systems that may have been hacked. FireEye, the cybersecurity company that discovered the intrusion into U.S. agencies and was among the victims, has already tallied dozens of casualties. It's racing to identify more.

“We have a serious problem. We don’t know what networks they are in, how deep they are, what access they have, what tools they left,” said Bruce Schneier, a prominent security expert and Harvard fellow.

It’s not clear exactly what the hackers were seeking, but experts say it could include nuclear secrets, blueprints for advanced weaponry, COVID-19 vaccine-related research and information for dossiers on key government and industry leaders.

Many federal workers — and others in the private sector — must presume that unclassified networks are teeming with spies. Agencies will be more inclined to conduct sensitive government business on Signal, WhatsApp and other encrypted smartphone apps.

“We should buckle up. This will be a long ride,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and former chief technical officer of the leading cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “Cleanup is just phase one.”

The only way to be sure a network is clean is “to burn it down to the ground and rebuild it,” Schneier said.

Imagine a computer network as a mansion you inhabit, and you are certain a serial killer as been there. “You don’t know if he’s gone. How do you get work done? You kind of just hope for the best,” he said.