How US Power Grids are Susceptible to Foreign Hackers

An AP investigative report looked at cases of sophisticated hacks into the US energy industry.

By Rhonda FanningDecember 21, 2015 11:32 am, ,

The next military conflict might not start with a bomb, but with a blackout.

National security experts have long warned that the United States’ infrastructure was vulnerable to hackers abroad. A few high profile cases have made headlines in recent years. In 2012 and 2013, Russian hackers were able to get into the U.S. public utilities and power generators to send and receive encrypted messages.

According to a new investigation by the Associated Press, many more breaches have flown under the radar. Garance Burke, a San Francisco based reporter for the Associated Press, says that the AP investigation team found about a dozen cases in which sophisticated foreign hackers have gained enough information to could control energy operations in the U.S.

“It’s not as if they actually shut off the lights in all of those instances,” she says. “But the mere fact that they were able to worm their way into the operations networks was certainly of concern to the people with whom we spoke.”

Burke says AP investigations spoke to a few top experts on the condition of anonymity, because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

The AP report says even though there haven’t been any blackouts, so many attackers have “stowed away” in electric grid systems across the U.S. that experts say the attackers have the capability to strike at any moment. Finding out who exactly those attackers are is difficult, Burke says.

“Attribution is really notoriously tricky, in some cases private firms have alleged that these were Chinese hackers who had some affiliation with the Chinese government for instance,” Burke says. “Same goes for Russian hackers. The instance that we found involved hackers based in Iran who had gained access to some very sensitive engineers’ drawings of power plants across the country.”

No one was able to tell AP whether there was a clear tie to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Burke says. But the FBI did find these cases concerning enough to send out an unclassified bulletin last year warning the energy industry that a group using Iran-based IP addresses had targeted their operations.

“These particular drawings of which we obtained copies were so detailed that experts told us that skilled attackers could have used them along with other tools and malicious code to knock out electricity flowing to millions of homes,” Burke says.

So how did the electric grid systems further bar from hackings? Burke says they wouldn’t say. The team spoke with the Calpine Corporation, the Texas-based power producer who experienced the theft of information. The corporation has 82 plants operating in 18 U.S states plus Canada.

“They would not share with us what they had done in order to shore up their systems against the threat,” Burke says. “They said that the drawings were old and presented no danger, but other experts with whom we spoke disagree.”