When you consider the number of cyberattacks, crank calls, and personal protests House and Senate members and their offices face every day, it only makes sense to joke. Take Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. He's the Democrat who voted for healthcare reform after securing a Medicaid sweetheart deal for his state, one that had critics seething. When told that the Senate switchboard was recently overloaded by 770,000 healthcare protest calls—155,000 in one hour alone—he cracked, "Are you sure my office didn't get all those 155,000 calls?"
But for those tasked with halting high-tech assaults, it's serious business. "It's a continued, constant threat," says Terrance Gainer, the Senate sergeant at arms whose office handles IT. "Our adversaries are playing chess with us, trying to stay one move ahead."
Attacks filter in from everywhere, overseas and domestic, and the numbers are staggering. Both House and Senate office computers encounter millions of attacks a day, which is probably no surprise because Congress traffics in about 500 million E-mails each year. In 2008, for example, there were about 8 million network attacks per month just on the Senate side, says Gainer. The number surged to 1.6 billion a month last year, and this year it's averaging 1.8 billion a month. That includes worms, Trojan horses, and spyware, mostly delivered while viewing Web pages. Still, Gainer says, "I think we're safe." The numbers back him up: He figures that just "1.1" attacks get through every day.
Many of the hacker hits come in "spear phishing," when targeted staffers are lured to open special invitations loaded with malicious attachments.
And it's not just office computers being preyed on. Congressionally issued BlackBerrys also suck up Internet attacks, especially those carried by aides and members who travel internationally. Over the past year, congressional IT teams and the National Security Agency have started a BlackBerry scanning program. "I don't think there's any end in sight for" security threats, says Gainer.