The years-long Marriott Starwood database breach was almost certainly the work of nation-state hackers sponsored by China, likely as part of a larger campaign by Chinese hackers to breach health insurers and government security clearance files, The New York Times reports. Why would foreign spies be so interested in the contents of a hotel’s guest database? Turns out “Marriott is the top hotel provider for American government and military personnel.” The Starwood database contained a treasure trove of highly detailed information about these personnel’s movements around the world.

Chinese hackers didn’t stop there. According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal last week, nation-state hackers sponsored by China have successfully breached numerous third-party contractors working for the U.S. Navy on multiple occasions over the past 18 months. The data stolen included highly classified information about advanced military technology currently under development, including “secret plans to build a supersonic anti-ship missile planned for use by American submarines.” The WSJ noted that hackers specifically targeted third-party federal contractors because many are small firms that lack the financial resources to invest in robust cyber security defenses.

In testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, FBI counterintelligence division head E.W. “Bill” Priestap called cyberespionage on the part of Chinese hackers the “most severe” threat to American security, citing the country’s “relentless theft of U.S. assets” in an effort to “supplant [the United States] as the world’s superpower.”

Inconsistent security practices leave U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System vulnerable to cyber attacks

While the Navy has been hit particularly hard, the entire U.S. government, including all branches of the military, are under constant threats of cyber attack from Chinese hackers and other nation-state actors — and they’re ill-prepared to fend off these attacks. Around the same time the Marriott Starwood breach was disclosed, the Defense Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an audit report citing inconsistent security practices at DoD facilities, including facilities managed by third-party contractors, that store technical information on the nation’s ballistic missile defense system (BMDS). The report described failures to enact basic security measures, such as:

* Requiring the use of multifactor authentication to access BMDS technical information
* Identifying and mitigating known network vulnerabilities
* Locking server racks
* Protecting and monitoring classified data stored on removable media
* Encrypting BMDS technical information transmission
* Implementing intrusion detection capabilities on classified networks
* Requiring written justification to obtain and elevate system access for users
* Consistently implementing physical security controls to limit unauthorized access to facilities that manage BMDS technical information

Cyber security problems abound among DoD and other federal contractors

The OIG report comes on the heels of another the office issued earlier this year, citing security problems specifically at contractor-run military facilities. The WSJ report on Chinese hackers implied that inadequate security is the norm, not the exception, at federal contractors and subcontractors, citing an intelligence official who described military subcontractors as “lagging behind in cybersecurity and frequently [suffering] breaches” that impact not just the military branch they work for, but also other branches.

In theory, military contractors shouldn’t be having these problems. Most federal contractors must comply with the strict security controls outlined in NIST 800–171, and DoD contractors must comply with DFARS 800–171. DoD contractors were required to, at minimum, have a “system security plan” in place by December 31, 2017. However, many small and mid-sized organizations missed the December 31 deadline, often because they felt they did not have the resources to comply. However, continued non-compliance puts these vendors’ contracts at risk of cancellation, as well as national security at risk from Chinese hackers and other cyber criminals.

It’s not too late to begin compliance efforts. If your agency starts working towards compliance now, you can demonstrate that you have a plan to comply and are making progress with it to your prime contractor, subcontractor, or DoD contracting officer.

Author's Bio: 

Michael Peters is the CEO of Lazarus Alliance, Inc., the Proactive Cyber Security™ firm, and Continuum GRC. He has served as an independent information security consultant, executive, researcher, and author. He is an internationally recognized and awarded security expert with years of IT and business leadership experience and many previous executive leadership positions.

He has contributed significantly to curriculum development for graduate degree programs in information security, advanced technology, cyberspace law, and privacy, and to industry standard professional certifications. He has been featured in many publications and broadcast media outlets as the “Go-to Guy” for executive leadership, information security, cyberspace law, and governance.