Security experts are concerned that state-sponsored hackers could strike at America’s industrial control systems, which could cause power outages and electrical grid failures.
Although it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, experts warn that Russia has already dabbled with so-called “cyberphysical” attacks. Western Ukraine was on the receiving end of one such attack two years ago, when Trojan software was used to briefly cause a blackout that affected several hundred thousand people. Another attack was staged in 2016, this time affecting the capital of Kiev.
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Something similar could happen in the US, the authorities believe.
On October 20, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert warning of a “multistage intrusion campaign” targeting industrial control systems in critical infrastructure, which includes the “the energy, water, aviation, nuclear, and manufacturing sectors.”
The authorities have also issued a ban on Kaspersky Lab’s cybersecurity products, following reports from Israeli intelligence that purported that the software was being used by hackers to comb for classified information on US computers.
In July, security groups reported that a group – one different from the hackers that sabotaged Ukraine’s power – had accessed computers at a dozen US power plants. Wolf Creek, a nuclear power plant in Kansas, was one of the plants affected by the cyberattack.
There is evidence that suggests that the Ukraine hacks were warmups for an eventual attack on US power systems, security company FireEye told Bloomberg. Traces of the Sandworm malware used in the earlier attack have been found on computers run by American electrical operators, the company said.
While Russian hackers have yet to do anything malicious to these systems, recent headlines, such as the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, have people concerned.
“My number one fear is not the direct consequences of a cyberattack,” Martin Libicki, US Naval Academy visiting professor and author of Cyberspace in Peace and War, told Bloomberg. “It’s if we get into a conflict with another country and there’s a cyberattack, we will overreact, or they will overreact.”
“We’ve seen a series of lines crossed that we thought were no-go areas,” commented New America fellow Peter Singer. “The Russians have crossed lines and, more importantly, done so without punishment. That sends a signal, not just to them but to everyone else, that, ‘Hey, you can get away with this.’”
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