Washington, D.C.-based policy and research institutes’ computer systems are being targeted by hackers in China, Russia and Iran to gain insight on their internal debates and discover reliable sources of information, the FBI told The Washington Times.
The Times quoted FBI Special Agent Matthew O’Brien, a private sector coordinator in the Washington Field Office, the 200 or so “think tanks” in the National Capital Region are being targeted because of their close relationships and influence with government officials.
The hackers are seeking to infiltrate the organizations’ digital networks and physical systems to monitor their internal policy debates and uncover information pools.
“The think tanks are influencers, and even though a lot of what they are going to do is published, these foreign nation-states are interested in hacking in to understand, maybe to hear, the disagreements between various individuals in think tanks,” O’Brien told The Times.
The organizations being targeted cover a wide range of politics and policy issues, do not believe in a single or similar ideology but all share a relationship with the federal government.
If the foreign adversaries are unable to breach an organization’s computer systems via remote means, O’Brien says they have infiltrated the think tanks’ offices in person and covertly installed keystroke logging software that can obtain personal log-in information to evade the remote cybersecurity defenses.
“We’ve got reports from the think tanks locally that they’ll try to piggyback coming in through doors and just walk in and see if they can get access to somewhere,” O’Brien said. “Which, you’d think it’s a lot more sophisticated but it’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s just taking advantage of everybody’s kind of lull in security practices.”
O’Brien said the espionage is not limited to think tanks, but colleges and universities as well, using similar tactics.
The FBI is trying to alert the think tanks and colleges to the problem but have met with resistance due to a prior relationship in which the institutes perceived a dismissive attitude by the agency, The Times said.
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