WASHINGTON (AP) - The pursuit of hackers who audaciously stole and published credit reports for Michelle Obama, the attorney general, FBI director and other U.S. politicians and celebrities crisscrossed continents and included a San Francisco-based Internet company, Cloudflare, The Associated Press has learned.
The sensational crime caught the attention of Congress and President Barack Obama, who said “we should not be surprised.”
Obama said he could not confirm that the first lady’s credit report was published earlier this week on a Russian website, along with what appeared to be the credit reports of nearly two dozen others, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Donald Trump and celebrities Britney Spears, Jay Z, Beyonce and Tiger Woods.
Perhaps in a show of defiance as the FBI, Secret Service and the Los Angeles Police Department coordinated efforts to investigate the security breach, the website added late Wednesday what it said was the credit report of disgraced Pennsylvania football coach Jerry Sandusky.
If accurate as widely suspected, the leaked records put each victim at significant risk of identity theft. Included in the reports are Social Security numbers, dates of birth and a list of previous home addresses. The records also include such personal information as the first lady’s monthly payments on a student loan 10 years ago and that she once held a Banana Republic credit card.
The president said determined hackers are a persistent threat.
“We should not be surprised that if you’ve got hackers who want to dig in and devote a lot of resources, that they can access people’s private information,” Obama told ABC News in an interview aired Wednesday. “It is a big problem.”
Obama added: “It would not shock me if some information among people who presumably have pretty good safeguards against it, still gets out. That’s part of the reason why we’ve got to continually improve what we do and coordinate between public and private sectors to make sure that people’s information is safe.”
On Capitol Hill, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee cited the breach Wednesday at a congressional hearing about the government prosecuting hackers. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the leaks of financial information was “just the beginning of the problem” when it comes to the vulnerability of U.S. computer networks. Goodlatte said the U.S. has billions of dollars at stake, as foreign hackers try to steal sensitive information from businesses.
“The truth is that all citizens are vulnerable to these kinds of cyberattacks,” Goodlatte said.
A spokesman for one of the largest U.S. credit bureaus, Tim Klein of Equifax, said an initial investigation showed that the hackers accessed the credit bureau’s system by correctly entering personal details about their victims to impersonate them and generate the credit reports.
A retired FBI executive assistant director, Shawn Henry, said he hopes the incident sheds light on the scope of the cybersecurity problem and identity theft in particular, which affects millions of Americans who aren’t famous enough to make headlines.
“There’s a lot of sensitive data available online,” said Henry, the president of CrowdStrike, a security technology company. “People aren’t keeping information in a safe locked behind closed doors. Information being breached and violated is happening every day.”
In San Francisco, Cloudflare operates the directory computers, known as name servers, used behind the scenes to send visitors to the Russian website where the stolen credit reports were being published, according to Internet registration records. Without that service, few Internet users would be able to visit the Russian website or view the stolen credit reports.