The FBI is sounding the alarm that Washington, D.C.-area think tanks are new targets of foreign adversaries looking to monitor their work and their interaction with the U.S. government, The Washington Times has learned.
FBI Special Agent Matthew O’Brien, a private sector coordinator in the Washington Field Office, told The Times that the FBI has discovered foreign adversaries from Russia, China and Iran attempting to breach the think tanks’ networks.
Mr. O’Brien, who is responsible for the National Capital Region’s approximately 200 think tanks, said the attackers are looking to hack into the policy hubs’ digital networks and physical systems to surveil the policy debate happening inside Washington’s think tanks and spot and assess sources of information.
The at-risk think tanks cover a broad spectrum of politics and policy and are not limited to a single ideology or subject matter but share proximity to the federal government.
“The think tanks are influencers, and even though a lot of what they are going to do is published, these foreign nation-states are interested in hacking in to understand, maybe to hear, the disagreements between various individuals in think tanks,” Mr. O’Brien said.
When the attackers are unable to breach targeted think tanks’ systems remotely, Mr. O’Brien said attackers have slipped into think tanks’ offices and plugged in keystroke loggers to learn how to get the credentialing necessary to bypass cybersecurity defenses.
“We’ve got reports from the think tanks locally that they’ll try to piggyback coming in through doors and just walk in and see if they can get access to somewhere,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Which, you’d think it’s a lot more sophisticated but it’s not always that way, sometimes it’s just taking advantage of everybody’s kind of lull in security practices.”