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Energy sector a prime target for cyber attacks

Experts say the nation's critical infrastructure remains woefully vulnerable

By Taylor Armerding, CSO
February 21, 2014 04:24 PM ET

CSO - Any government that wants to set priorities for cybersecurity should probably put its energy infrastructure close to the top.

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If your electricity or fuel supplies are down, it's tough to provide just about anything else. Heat, refrigeration, water, factories, financial services, power equipment, groceries, retail, and entertainment -- they all depend on the power grid.

So it is no surprise that the energy sector ranks close to the top of targets for cyber attackers. If you really want to cripple anything, from an enterprise to a nation state, take down its power infrastructure.

Another reason energy is an increasingly high-risk industry is the variety of attackers interested in it. Candid Wueest, a researcher for security firm Symantec, said in a recent report titled, "Targeted Attacks Against the Energy Sector," that miscreants ranging from so-called script kiddies to rival corporations, hacktivists with a political agenda, hostile insiders, cyber criminals out to make money through sabotage or blackmail and nation states or those acting under their sponsorship are all looking to steal proprietary information or damage the grid.

Wueest reported that there were an average of 74 targeted cyberattacks per day between July 2012 and June 2013, with the energy sector accounting for 16.3% of them, which put it in second place behind government/public sector at 25.4%.

The U.S. government's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported last year that its Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) responded to more than 200 incidents between Oct. 2012 and May 2013 -- with 53% aimed at the energy sector.

There have, so far, not been any successful catastrophic attacks on the grid, and there is ongoing debate about how high the risk is for what both former Defense secretary Leon Panetta and former Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano called a "cyber Pearl Harbor" attack.

Some experts contend that while the risks are real and should cause concern, they are unlikely to cause catastrophic, long-term damage. Others say the nation's economy could be paralyzed for a number of months to more than a year while critical infrastructure (CI) systems are rebuilt.

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Whatever the present danger, Wueest wrote that, "the increasing number of connected systems and centralized control for ICS (Industrial Control Systems) means that the risk of attacks in the future will increase. Energy and utility companies need to be aware of these risks and plan accordingly to protect their valuable information as well as their ICS or SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) networks."

Indeed, ICS experts like Joe Weiss, managing partner at Applied Control Solutions, have been warning for years about the risk of having not only centralized control systems, but that also having virtually all of them made by the same company -- Siemens -- adds to the vulnerability.

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