Hackers breached computer network at key US port but did not disrupt operations

Originally Published: 23 SEP 21 17:26 ET

Updated: 23 SEP 21 18:35 ET

By Sean Lyngaas, CNN

    (CNN) — Suspected foreign government-backed hackers last month breached a computer network at one of the largest ports on the US Gulf Coast, but early detection of the incident meant the intruders weren’t in a position to disrupt shipping operations, according to a Coast Guard analysis of the incident obtained by CNN and a public statement from a senior US cybersecurity official.

The incident at the Port of Houston is an example of the interest that foreign spies have in surveilling key US maritime ports, and it comes as US officials are trying to fortify critical infrastructure from such intrusions.

“If the compromise had not been detected, the attacker would have had unrestricted remote access to the [IT] network” by using stolen log-in credentials, reads the US Coast Guard Cyber Command’s analysis of the report, which is unclassified and marked “For Official Use Only.” “With this unrestricted access, the attacker would have had numerous options to deliver further effects that could impact port operations.”

The Port of Houston is a 25-mile-long complex through which 247 million tons of cargo move each year, according to its website.

It’s unclear who was behind the breach, which appears to be part of a broader espionage campaign. When asked about the incident at a Senate hearing on Thursday, US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly said she believed a foreign government-backed hacking group was responsible.

Attribution of cyberattacks “can always be complicated,” Easterly told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “At this point in time, I would have to get back with my colleagues, but I do think it is a nation-state actor.”

“The campaign thus far is limited, but we’re continuing to work through it and I’m happy to keep you apprised,” she told lawmakers.

The Coast Guard’s analysis did not mention a foreign government or the Port of Houston, but Easterly…