If a foreign government is behind the massive computer attack that compromised a half billion user accounts at Yahoo, as the company says, the breach could be part of a long-term strategy that’s aimed at gathering intelligence rather than getting rich.
Yahoo says the breach involved users’ email addresses, passwords and other information — including birthdates — but not payment card or bank account numbers. Although the stolen data could still be used in financial crimes, such as identity theft, experts say a foreign intelligence agency might combine the Yahoo files with information from other sources to build extensive dossiers on U.S. government or corporate officials in sensitive positions.
“With state-sponsored attacks, it’s not just financial information that’s of value,” said Lance Hoffman, co-director of the Cyberspace Security and Privacy Institute at George Washington University. “In the long run, if the state accumulates a lot of information on you, and especially if it corroborates that with other sources, it can assemble a pretty good profile.”
Governments have also been known to hack email accounts to keep tabs on their own citizens or dissidents. Experts believe that was one motive behind a 2010 hacking of Google Gmail accounts used by Chinese human rights activists.
Yahoo hasn’t revealed the evidence that led it to blame a “state-sponsored actor” for the latest attack, which the Sunnyvale, California, company said occurred two years ago and was discovered only in recent weeks.
Some analysts warn that “state sponsored” can be a vague term. It might also be an easy excuse to deflect blame for a company’s own security lapses, by suggesting it had no hope of defeating hackers who had all the resources of a government intelligence agency behind them, warned Gunter Ollmann, chief security officer at Vectra Networks, a San Jose, California, security firm.
Yahoo declined comment, but its top…