Chinese hack into U.S. weather systems satellites – event goes unreported

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 13, 2014

Amid the furore surrounding the invasion of privacy and the trampling of privacy rights by government surveillance agencies, the work of governments spying on governments continues unabated.

A recent episode is as revealing for its content as well as for its timing, as it involves China and the U.S. at a time when sensitive meetings between the heads of both nations is taking place in China. The attack on the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) joins a spate of cyber espionage on federal systems revealed recently, including one that breached unclassified White House computer networks.

The Washington Post reported that the U.S. is accusing China of hacking into its weather system’s satellites which generate weather models, advisories, and warnings to the country and the world. The fallout from the breach caused many in authority to speculate that this was an attempt to perhaps “piggy-back’ on the intrusion to follow it into even more sensitive networks such as the Defense Department.

What is very worrying is that the hack may have been targeting more than just mundane weather data. It may have been an attempt to find an opening into a more intricate, sensitive US sytem and exploit it. This opinion was expressed by Jacob Olcott, a cybersecurity consultant and former Senate staffer on cybersecurity legislation. “The bad guys are increasingly having a hard time getting in the front (door) of these agencies,” he said. “So they figure if I can’t get in the front door, I’d ride along with someone (The NOAA system) who has trusted access and maybe ride that connection to bigger agencies.”

Additionally alarming to many, and a reason for concern about government transparency, is that the event occurred back in September and is only coming to light now. Is it coincidence that the information was made public after Americans had cast their ballots in the mid-term elections? Was it a reaction by the administration similar to that during the Benghazi fiasco during the presidential campaign of 2012?

The intrusion was detected and appraised by Oct. 20. The delay warrants speculation that this was an attempt by the administration to further distract attention from another of President Obama’s foreign policy failures- namely the “Asia pivot” – an attempt to gain more friendly relations with the Chinese. Instead, coming with U.S.-China high-level meetings, it may prove to be an embarrassment.

NOAA officials declined to discuss the suspected source of the attack or whether it affected classified data or the delay in notification. It said that it was doing “unscheduled maintenance” on its network while not revealing whether a computer hack made that necessary. But the agency later confirmed to US Rep. Frank Wolf(R-Va.) that China was behind the attack, according to Wolf who investigated the incident upon hearing about it from the Washington Post. “NOAA told me it was a hack and it was China”, said Wolf, who simultaneously chided the agency for not disclosing the intrusion “and deliberately misleading the American public in its replies. “They had an obligation to tell the truth. They covered it up. The Chinese are stealing us blind.”

Acknowledgement of this hack come in the wake of an admission three days ago by the US Postal Service that a suspected Chinese attack, also in September, compromised 800,000 employees, from letter carriers up to the Postmaster General. Again, the publicizing of the incident came when it was too late to for voters to register their dismay at the polls. But perhaps it was done in time for the Chinese to gain leverage in advance of the US-China summit?

NOAA officials refused to comment on whether the attack removed material or inserted malware. This is an important fact because the NOAA system is used by civilian and military forecasters in the US and also feeds weather models at the main centers for Europe and Canada. They also partner with the US Navy and Coast Guard to aid in navigation. The attack caused a two-day outage which marginally affected its long-range forecasting ability.

How can NOAA be so vulnerable? Weather satellites orbit hundreds of thousands of miles above the earth and offer continuous views of weather systems such as hurricanes and weather fronts, gathering precious bits of information that get fed into prediction models. To get that information to the public, NOAA makes satellite and weather imagery available through the Web and also the transfer networks for downloads.The NOAA network is usually a reliable service, renowned for running highly advanced global weather predictions and aiding in evacuations during weather events.

Potentially harming to the US economy, the breach affected commercial interests, too. Delta airlines adapted to the loss of data it normally includes in pilot briefings of potential aviation hazards. But the airline’s meteorologists and information technology experts mitigated the damage caused by the outage by turning to alternative sources of information. In Florida, satellite images which bolster ocean fishing forecasts were affected. Executives that run companies which rely on the data received no replies from government officials who they queried on the information blackout.

Some, while fearful of the impact of such a hack, are not surprised at its occurrence. A July report on NOAA by the Inspector General (IG) for the Commerce Department – where NOAA is esconced- criticized a myriad of high-risk vulnerabilities in the security of NOAA weather service systems. This wasn’t the first such warning.

The report echoed the views of a 2009 audit from the IG said the primary system that processes satellite data from two environmental and meteorological systems had significant “security weaknesses, and that a ’security breach could have severe or catastrophic adverse effects…” The Report of the IG was obtained by the Washington Post under a FOIA request and it called for “immediate management attention,” while highlighting the vulnerabilities of the system. Apparently, the IG’s warnings were insufficient to prevent the current intrusion.

So while political events continue to play out between the US and China, indeed a climate change deal has emerged from the top-level talks between the nation’s leaders, it is business as usual in the world of espionage. One could take the high-road and hold that the recent Chinese hack was because they want to better manage the environment and climate change in advance of the meeting with Obama. Were it only true.


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