Russian attacks on energy grid spark alarm

Russian attacks on energy grid spark alarm
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Revelations about Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. energy grid are sparking new fears in Washington about the growing threat to the energy sector.

The developments have some officials worried that Moscow or another nation state could execute a disruptive cyberattack targeting the U.S. power grid.

"The next Dec. 7 won't be airplanes and torpedoes coming at Pearl Harbor, it's going to be triggered with an attack on our energy grid with rolling blackouts and chaos," Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said this week. 

Officials with the Department of Homeland Security and FBI revealed last week that Russian hackers have staged cyberattacks against the energy sector and other critical infrastructure since 2016. They linked a coordinated hacking campaign the security community had been tracking for months to the Russian government.

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Officials issued a public alert describing how hackers penetrated commercial entities on the fringes of the energy sector to compromise their intended victims. They were ultimately able to gain access to information on industrial control systems, technology used to power critical services like electric power and water.

In one case, hackers remotely accessed a human-machine interface, a device used by individuals to operate large industrial control systems — meaning they could have shut off power.

"They were on machines that were on the operational network that had the control panel not only monitoring but also control for systems that were generating power, generating electricity," Eric Chien, technical director at cybersecurity firm Symantec, said.

Lawmakers and other officials in Washington have sounded the alarm about potential cyber threats to the energy grid over the last year, after attacks took down power in parts of Ukraine in 2015 and 2016. Moscow is suspected in both attacks.

Newly identified strains of malware targeting industrial control systems — which are very rare — have underscored the threat. Last June, researchers released details on the malware linked to the 2016 attack in Ukraine. And in December, security firms identified malware targeting safety systems manufactured by Schneider Electric that shut down operations at an unknown industrial plant in the Middle East.

Experts note that the decentralized nature of the U.S. power grid — which is itself comprised of many small grids — means that it would take several simultaneous cyberattacks to take down power across a wide swath of the country.

But the latest revelations of Russian attacks spurred new concerns about the ability of hackers to breach power systems and other critical infrastructure, which are largely owned and operated by private companies.

"I am very much concerned, not only [about] Russia but any enemy, domestic enemy or foreign enemy," Rep. Bobby RushBobby Lee RushHouse Democrats blur lines on support for impeachment Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid CBC lawmakers rip Justice Democrats for targeting black lawmakers for primaries MORE (D-Ill.), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told The Hill. "Our energy sector is very vulnerable to invasive attacks."

The alert issued last week suggests that the Russians were collecting intelligence on control systems that could ultimately be used to stage disruptive or destructive attacks.

Those threats have been noticed at the Department of Energy, which last month announced plans to create a new office devoted to cybersecurity and energy security. The department's cyber funds would get a boost under President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE's proposed fiscal 2019 budget, amid cuts to other programs.

In recent months, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which sets mandatory standards for grid operators, has also proposed a series of new rules governing cybersecurity and cyber incident reporting.

Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryTrump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary Overnight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Perry notified Trump he will resign: reports MORE addressed the Russian cyberattacks on Thursday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Perry assured lawmakers the Trump administration was taking steps to stop attacks on the grid, though he refused to go into detail in a public setting.

"We're making, I think, every effort to protect the electrical grid from those types of attacks," Perry said.

When asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) if the attacks were an act of war, Perry said he would "tend to agree."

Protecting the grid requires the Energy Department to coordinate with private companies in the energy sector and the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for protecting critical infrastructure from cyber and physical threats.   

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeGOP searches for impeachment boogeyman Democrats claim new momentum from intelligence watchdog testimony Hillicon Valley: Senate passes bill to boost cyber help for agencies, businesses | Watchdog warns Energy Department failing to protect grid | FTC sues Match for allegedly conning users MORE (R-Texas), who heads the Homeland Security subcommittee focused on cyber issues, told The Hill that his panel would examine the Russian attacks as part of its oversight role. Still, he expressed confidence that Homeland Security is responding adequately to the threat, citing the cyber expertise of Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary Trump says acting Homeland Security chief McAleenan will step down Activists to demonstrate at ICE headquarters after Cameroonian immigrant dies in custody MORE, the department's new secretary.

"We're constantly following up when we get reports like that," Ratcliffe said.

"The Department of Homeland Security has never had more cyber expertise than it has right now," Ratcliffe added. "For all of the concerns about Russian meddling into our election and more generally into our critical infrastructure, we're better equipped to deal with it than we've been at any point in the past."

Rep. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonGOP group calls out five House Republicans to speak up on Ukraine House passes bill to revamp medical screenings for migrants at border Energy efficiency cannot be a partisan issue for Washington MORE (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy, in an interview said he plans to make cybersecurity a big focus of an upcoming April 12 hearing with Perry.

The Russian grid attacks have widely been viewed in the context of Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Trump administration disclosed the energy sector attacks when unveiling new sanctions on Moscow for meddling in the election and executing the global NotPetya malware attack last summer.

Still, the threat to the energy sector extends beyond Moscow. 

On Friday, U.S. officials indicted and sanctioned nine Iranian hackers for breaching hundreds of universities and other organizations to steal information on behalf of Iran's government and for financial gain.

One of their targets, officials said, was the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

"That is the agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil," Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, said Friday.

"That agency has details of some of this country's most sensitive infrastructure."

Timothy Cama contributed.