Cyberspies have compromised U.S. power grid, newspaper reports

The intrusions appear to be pervasive, government officials tell The Wall Street Journal

Cyberspies, probably from Russia or China, have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that can disrupt it, says an article in the Wall Street Journal that neither names the source of the information nor where this compromise of the grid is occurring.

Have cyberspies from China and Russia penetrated the U.S. electrical grid with the intent of being able to disrupt it in a time of conflict? That’s what a Wall Street Journal article today asserts, based on unnamed sources.

According to the article: "The espionage appears pervasive across the U.S. and doesn't target a particular company or region, said a former Department of Homeland Security official. 'There are intrusions, and they are growing,’ the former official said, referring to the electrical systems. 'There were a lot last year.'"

The article quotes a senior intelligence official saying, "The Chinese have attempted to map out infrastructure, such as the electrical grid." The claim is also made that software left behind in electrical-grid controlling equipment could be used to destroy infrastructure components.

The story has been noticed in the online discussion group SCADA SECURITY where engineers and other technical experts interested in Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Systems participate in sharing insights and opinions. "It could be FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] or it might have real substance," commented one SCADA SEC subscriber.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) issued this statement: "Though we are not aware of any reports of cyber attacks that have directly impacted reliability of the power system in North America to date, it is an issue the industry is working to stay ahead of. ... There is definitely more to be done, and we look forward to continuing our work with the electric industry and our partners in U.S. and Canadian government to improve reliability standards, ensure appropriate emergency authority is in place to address imminent and specific cyber security threats, and ultimately ensure a safe, secure, and reliable energy future for North America."

U.S. lawmakers and some security experts have raised concerns for several years about the security of the power grid and other control systems. In a congressional hearing in March, Joseph Weiss, managing partner of control systems security consultancy Applied Control Solutions, said networks controlling U.S. industrial control systems have been breached more than 125 times in the past decade, with one resulting in U.S. deaths.

It could take the United States weeks to replace damaged equipment after coordinated attacks on infrastructure using control systems, Weiss said then. A coordinated attack "could be devastating to the U.S. economy and security," he said. "We're talking months to recover. We're not talking days."

Other security experts have raised concerns that the electrical grid could become more vulnerable as it moves to a two-way smart grid, potentially using the Internet for transmission. Congress provided $4.5 billion for smart-grid deployment in an economic stimulus package passed earlier this year.

IOActive, a Seattle security consultancy, has spent the past year testing smart-grid devices for security vulnerabilities and discovered a number of flaws that could allow hackers to access the network and cut power, the company said in March.

"We're talking about extending access down into the homes over a combination of wireless networks, home-area networks," added Brian Ahern, president and CEO of Industrial Defender, a control systems security vendor. "When you think about our existing infrastructure today -- power plants, transmission distribution systems -- they all have their own security problems. That's what we're all working diligently on right now -- making sure that our existing infrastructure is secure."

Ahern, speaking before the Journal report came out, expressed concerns about the electrical grid. "One of the challenges that we have today in this country is that you've got all this critical infrastructure that has been deployed over the last 20 years, and no one was even thinking about security," he said

Messmer is a senior editor at Network World. Gross writes from the Washington bureau of the IDG News Service.

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