Joseph Marks | Nextgov | May 24, 2017 | 0 Comments

Safe From WannaCry? Thank the Government.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly Andrew Harnik/AP

The government played an active role in keeping the U.S. largely safe from the WannaCry ransomware attack that targeted hundreds of thousands of computers across the globe, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Wednesday.

In a hearing before a House Appropriations Committee panel, Kelly described a rapid-fire Situation Room meeting about the attack during which DHS took the lead. The meeting also included officials from the FBI and the National Security Agency, he said.

“Because of the interagency effort of the U.S. but to a large degree because of what DHS does in its cybersecurity mission … let me just say the number of systems that were infected in our country were minuscule,” Kelly said. “We defended the country from the biggest cyber onslaught in history and we were successful in keeping it out of our country with the exception of a tiny, tiny, tiny number of computers.”

Kelly did not describe the nature of that defense.

The vast majority of U.S. internet infrastructure is in the hands of the private sector. Government cyber experts only access it when that help is requested by a company to force out attackers or when the FBI or another law enforcement agency is investigating a crime and has obtained a warrant.

DHS does alert companies to imminent cyber threats through its Computer Emergency Readiness Team, as it did with the WannaCry attack May 12, and DHS and other agencies often reach out directly to companies they know are vulnerable, especially those in critical infrastructure sectors.

DHS has also urged companies and consumers to regularly update their software programs to install patches.

The WannaCry ransomware, which hit hundreds of thousands of victims globally, only reached a small number of U.S. computers. The ransomware exploited a vulnerability likely first spotted and exploited by NSA, according to a leak from the group Shadow Brokers.

Information security experts have attributed a large portion of the ransomware’s failure to spread farther to a British researcher who discovered a “kill switch.”

U.S. Cyber Command Chief Adm. Michael Rogers credited the fact the Defense Department was not hit by the ransomware to resources, expertise and advance planning.

“We were not impacted by WannaCry and it wasn’t from a lack of effort," Rogers told lawmakers during a budget hearing Tuesday. “We had spent a significant amount of time starting in March asking ourselves: How might this play out? How do we position ourselves?… How might an opponent exploit this vulnerability?”

Kelly also defended a comment he made during a George Washington University address in April that lawmakers criticizing U.S. Customs and Border Protection efforts to combat the entry of undocumented migrants “should have the courage and skill to change the laws” or “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, took umbrage at the comment, telling Kelly he’s free to disagree with lawmakers, but “it’s going to be a long term for you” if he attacks them in that manner.

Kelly replied his comment was spurred by a sense lawmakers were criticizing border agents themselves rather than the Trump administration policy.

“In this job, all I heard day in and day out: ‘Nazis,’ ‘storm troop tactics,’ ‘prejudice’ about the men and women, the foot soldiers, if you will, that stand on our border or inside our country and protected it,” Kelly said. “And I would just ask that [you] criticize me, criticize the Trump policies, but please recognize that my men and women are doing the same kind of thing, day in and day out, as our military men and women are. Give them a break. That’s what the ‘shut up’ comment was about.” 

Comments
JOIN THE DISCUSSION