Analysis: Potential espionage aspects of attack on US Capitol must be considered

US CapitolTHE INSURGENTS WHO STORMED the United States Capitol Building Complex on January 6 may have unwittingly provided cover for teams of foreign spies, who could have stolen or compromised sensitive electronic equipment. This largely neglected security-related aspect of the attack is discussed in an insightful article by David Gewitz, a ZDNet and CNET columnist who writes about cybersecurity affairs.

Hundreds of unauthorized people entered the US Capitol last Wednesday. Many of them entered the offices of several members of Congress, some of whom are members of Congressional committees on intelligence, armed services, defense, and other sensitive matters. According to Gewitz, “there is absolutely no knowing what actions were taken against digital gear inside the building” by the intruders. Most of them were clearly members of disorganized mobs, who appeared to have no concrete plan of action once inside the Capitol. However, points Gewitz, it would have been easy for foreign actors to blend in with the crowd of wild-eyed rioters and surreptitiously entered the Capitol in order to steal or compromise sensitive electronic equipment.

In addition to stealing electronic equipment, foreign spies could have stolen sensitive documents, access codes and passcodes, says Gewitz. He adds that more sophisticated efforts could have included loading malware onto Capitol computer systems, or plugging surreptitious USB drives into the internal ports of tower PCs —a process that takes less than two minutes for someone who is equipped with an pocket-size electric screwdriver. Foreign actors could also have left dozens of “generic USB drives in various drawers and on various desks” around the Capitol, hoping that members of Congress or their aides will make use of them in the coming days or weeks. For all we know, says Gewitz, the place could now be riddled with USB chargers with built-in wireless key-loggers, devices that look like power strips but actually hide wireless network hacking tools, fake smoke detectors, electric outlets or switches that contain bugs, and many other surreptitious spying devices.

What should Capitol security personnel do to prevent the potential espionage fallout from the January 6 attack? Gewitz argues that, given the extremely sensitive nature of the information that is stored in the Capitol’s digital systems, federal cybersecurity personnel should “assume that ALL the digital devices at the Capitol have been compromised”, he writes. They will therefore need to resort to “a scorched Earth remediation effort”, meaning that they will have to “completely scrub” those systems, and even lock the USB drive slots of every PC in the building complex. This damage will take months, even years, to clean up, he concludes.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 January 2021 | Permalink

4 Responses to Analysis: Potential espionage aspects of attack on US Capitol must be considered

  1. Scott Frerichs says:

    I question how “unwitting” this was with respect to some of these domestic terrorists.

  2. Marcus McLeod says:

    This is a very insightful post and I agree with much of what Gewitz has to bring to the table. Do you think though, that at some point the FBI or DOJ (or anyone for this matter) has considered Gewitz’s conclusion of the “scorched Earth remediation effort” approach? Furthermore, I question the actual capacity of a congress member’s involvement with sensitive/classified information. Could you shed light on the national security aspects of lawmakers?

  3. intelNews says:

    @Marcus: I think you’re right that the average lawmaker does not deal with classified information in their day-to-day work. However, congress is the site of the intelligence committees, which typically meet behind closed doors and hear from senior IC officials. There are many discussions that take place in the offices of Congress members who are members of the intel committees, the armed services committee, appropriations committee, etc. As for the “scorched Earth” policy, I think that horse has bolted –I’m told members of Congress and their aides began using electronic devices in their offices as soon as Congress reconvened on the evening of January 6…. [JF]

  4. Marcus McLeod says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for the clarification!

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