Apparent DDOS Attack Hits HHS Computer System, but Leaves No Damage

March 16, 2020
An apparent DDOS attack against the information system at the Department of Health and Human Services leaves no evident damage

A cyberattack was launched on Monday against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, just as the department’s senior officials are plunging into the effort to address the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Apparently, the cyberattack was meant to disrupt the function of the department’s information systems.

As ABC News’s John Santucci, Katherine Faulders, Josh Margolin, Luke Barr, and Mike Levine wrote on Monday afternoon, “The Department of Health and Human Services experienced suspicious cyberactivity Sunday night related to its coronavirus response, administration sources confirmed to ABC News Monday. The suspicious activity HHS was not a hack but it may have been a distributed denial of service -- or DDOS -- attack, according to multiple sources.”

What’s more, the ABC News reporters wrote, “The distinction is important because there was no apparent breach of the HHS system, which could interfere with critical functions of the lead agency responding to the coronavirus contagion. A DDOS effort enlists automated users -- called bots -- to overwhelm a public-facing system in order to slow it down or even paralyze it. Officials believe any coordinated effort against HHS -- if there was one -- was not particularly successful and are satisfied that the system was not significantly affected,” the wrote. “Nevertheless, the concern is that foreign actors might attempt to exploit the COVID-19 crisis to achieve some of their anti-American goals.”

“We are aware of a cyber incident related to the Health and Human Services computer networks, and the federal government is investigating this incident thoroughly,” John Ullyot, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “HHS and federal government cybersecurity professionals are continuously monitoring and taking appropriate actions to secure our federal networks.” He said “HHS and federal networks are functioning normally at this time.”

As Bloomberg’s Shira Stein and Jennifer Jacobs wrote on Monday, “While a foreign state is suspected in the attack, the administration hasn’t yet confirmed who it was, according to a U.S. official. An HHS spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency had “put extra protections in place” as it prepared to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. ‘On Sunday, we became aware of a significant increase in activity on HHS cyber infrastructure and are fully operational as we actively investigate the matter,’ said the spokeswoman, Caitlin Oakley. ‘We are coordinating with federal law enforcement and remain vigilant and focused on ensuring the integrity of our IT infrastructure.’ The attack, which involved overloading the HHS servers with millions of hits over several hours, didn’t succeed in slowing the agency’s systems significantly, as was apparently intended, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. They requested anonymity to discuss details of the sensitive incident.”

Stein and Jacobs reported that, “Just before midnight on Sunday, the National Security Council issued a tweet warning without elaboration about ‘fake’ text messages. The tweet was prompted by a message from an unknown sender warning that the person’s ‘military friends’ had heard in a briefing that the ‘president will order a two-week mandatory quarantine for the nation.’ Officials believe the message -- spread by text, email and social media -- was related to the HHS hack, one of the people said. Trump is not considering a nationwide quarantine, White House officials say.”

Later, during the White House press briefing held at mid-afternoon on Monday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told the White House press corps that, ““Fortunately, we have extremely strong barriers. We’ve taken very strong actions,” Azar said. “The source of this enhanced activity remains under investigation. There is no damage.”

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