Could cy­ber­at­tacks knock out lights in the US?

The Oklahoman - - ENERGY - BY MATT O’BRIEN AP Tech­nol­ogy Re­porter

Hack­ers likely linked to the North Korean govern­ment tar­geted a U.S. elec­tric­ity com­pany last month, ac­cord­ing to a se­cu­rity firm that says it de­tected and stopped the at­tacks.

John Hultquist, di­rec­tor of in­tel­li­gence anal­y­sis for FireEye, said Wed­nes­day that phish­ing emails were sent to ex­ec­u­tives on Sept. 22. The at­tacks didn’t threaten crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture.

It’s the lat­est ex­am­ple of cy­beres­pi­onage tar­get­ing U.S. en­ergy util­i­ties, though ex­perts say such at­tacks are of­ten more about cre­at­ing a psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect. It’s eas­ier to hack into a front-end com­puter sys­tem than tap into in­dus­trial con­trols.

Con­cerns about hack­ers caus­ing black­outs have grown since cy­ber­at­tacks in Ukraine tem­po­rar­ily crip­pled its power grid in 2015 and 2016.

Ge­og­ra­phy helps

One thing pro­tect­ing the U.S. elec­tric­ity grid from a largescale out­age is that it’s seg­mented by re­gion. An­other thing is mil­i­tary might: Na­tion-state ac­tors know that cross­ing the line from rou­tine, long-term sur­veil­lance to a true at­tack on the grid could merit a pow­er­ful re­sponse.

Nei­ther of those means those pro­tect­ing crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture are do­ing enough.

“There are many rea­sons to tar­get smart grids,” said Michael Daly, the chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer for cybersecurity and mis­sions at de­fense con­trac­tor Raytheon, based in Waltham, Mas­sachusetts. “Na­tion-states can learn a lot by watch­ing power us­age.”

Or they could lay in wait, he said, with the aim of one day pulling the trig­ger and tar­get­ing a grid’s cus­tomers by slow­ing down power or cut­ting it off com­pletely.

The lat­est at­tempted in­tru­sion spot­ted by Mil­pi­tas, Cal­i­for­nia-based FireEye was no­table for its bold­ness, said Hultquist: The male­fac­tors didn’t seem wor­ried about be­ing dis­cov­ered.

That’s a sign that even if for­eign gov­ern­ments aren’t yet in­ter­ested, or ca­pa­ble, of turn­ing out the lights in New York or Los An­ge­les, they might at least want to sig­nal that they’re think­ing about it. Or they might be lay­ing contin­gency plans to cause dis­rup­tion in case of con­flict.


A con­crete pole car­ry­ing feeder lines stands out­side an elec­tric com­pany sub­sta­tion in the U.S. Hack­ers likely linked to the North Korean govern­ment tar­geted U.S. elec­tric­ity grid work­ers in Septem­ber.

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