A national security panic spread through the Internet yesterday after a report by The Wall Street Journal suggested “terabytes” of classified data on the F-35 Lightning II had been stolen by hackers. Today the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin responded to the allegations saying they are untrue, and I believe them.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said, “I’m not aware of any specific concerns.” That’s a key phrase. Lockheed Martin–the F-35 superjet’s primary contractor–also commented “We actually believe The Wall Street Journal was incorrect in its representation of successful cyber attacks on the F-35 program.” And the company’s CFO Bruce Tanner added “I’ve not heard of that, and to our knowledge there’s never been any classified information breach.”
While it’s easy to argue that these responses are merely a smokescreen to save political face, the language is much more direct than a plain old “no comment.” Typically, companies protect themselves in this sort of situation by denying the existing or potential hackers any public information on the success or failure of hack attempts, obscuring the level of secrecy of any stolen data. In the F-35 case it looks like the denials are much firmer, and that suggests the developers of the JSF are confident in their security systems. It’s an echo of alleged data leaks via F-35 contractor BAE Systems last year, that were later withdrawn due to lack of evidence that leaks had occurred.
Government and defense contractor computer networks face a pretty continuous rate of hack attempts. As a result such companies have even more stringent data security protocols in place than normal organizations. They’re still not absolutely impervious to hacking, of course, as no such system ever is. So that’s why the most highly classified data–critical to the super-secret offensive and defensive capabilities of hardware like the F-35–is typically stored on computers that have an extremely low-tech “air gap firewall”. They’re not connected to the external Internet in any way whatsoever.
To “hack” them, you’d basically have to steal the computer.