DHS: Risk of destructive cyberattack on grid 'low'

DHS: Risk of destructive cyberattack on grid 'low'
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The risk that nation-state hackers will launch a destructive cyberattack on the U.S. grid is low, according to a Department of Homeland Security intelligence assessment leaked by the research project Public Intelligence.

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“The majority of malicious activity occurring against the U.S. energy sector is low-level cybercrime that is likely opportunistic in nature rather than specifically aimed at the sector ... and is not meant to be destructive,” the January report reads.

According to the DHS, most cyber incidents faced by the electric industry are low-level crimes motivated by financial gain.

So-called advanced persistent threat (APT) nation-state cyber actors are targeting the energy sector primarily to collect intelligence — not launch an attack, the agency says.

“The APT activity ... is likely is part of nation-state contingency planning that would only be implemented to conduct a damaging or disruptive attack in the event of hostilities with the United States,” the report reads.

The assessment largely echoes what senior military and intelligence officials have previously testified — that nations like Iran, China and Russia are systemically mapping the U.S. power grid. Experts say that those nations are unlikely to risk an outright war with the United States by launching a destructive attack on the grid.

But the report details APT actors were responsible for at least 17 intrusions against the U.S. energy sector in 2014, the last full year for which this data was available. Nation-state hackers were responsible for two confirmed intrusions into U.S. petroleum organizations’ enterprise networks and are suspected of removing data in at least one case, according to the report.

The Obama administration recently indicted an Iranian hacker on charges of illegally accessing the control systems of a New York dam — access that would have given him the ability to control water levels and flow rates.

The incident sparked public fears that a so-called “cyber Pearl Harbor” might knock out large segments of the U.S. power grid — a potentially devastating event that could cost the economy hundreds of billions, raise mortality rates at hospitals and cut the nation’s water supply, according to a recent study.

But the DHS in its report threw cold water on such fears, calling such an event “possible" but "not likely” and hinting that the risk has been overstated in media reports.

“Imprecise use of the term ‘cyberattack’ in open source media reporting and throughout the private sector has led to misperceptions about the cyber threat to the U.S. energy sector,” the report reads.