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How much at risk is the U.S.'s critical infrastructure?

Taylor Armerding | Jan. 22, 2016
The U.S. intelligence community is well aware that hostile hackers – some from nation states – have gained access to portions of the nation’s critical infrastructure. There is wide agreement that this is not a good thing. But the debate about how big a threat it is rages on.

power grid electrical
Credit: April

There is universal agreement that modern warfare or crime fighting is not just about bullets, bombs and missiles in physical space. It’s also about hacking in cyber space.

But over the past decade there has been much less agreement over how much of a threat hackers are.

On one side are those – some of them top government officials – who have warned that a cyber attack on the nation’s critical infrastructure could be catastrophic, amounting to a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

Those warnings prompted the recent book by retired ABC TV “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel titled, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.”

Other experts argue just as forcefully that while the threats are real and should be taken seriously, the risks are not even close to catastrophic. They say those who predict catastrophe are peddling FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt.

A recent example of that view was an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor by C. Thomas, a strategist at Tenable Network Security, who uses the nickname Space Rogue.

He argued that the biggest threat to the U.S. power grid or other industrial control systems (ICS) is not a skilled hacker, but squirrels. They, along with other small animals, “cause hundreds of power outages every year and yet the only confirmed infrastructure cyberattack that has resulted in physical damage that is publicly known is Stuxnet (a computer worm that destroyed centrifuges used in the Iranian nuclear program),” he wrote.

That theory was immediately disputed by other experts, including Thomas P.M. Barnett of Resilient, who wrote in a blog post that the comparison is like calling the common cold a “bigger” threat than cancer. The cold is much more frequent, but is much less of a threat than cancer – or as he put it, cancer is “low probability but far higher impact.”

Still, growing evidence of intrusions into the power grid and other critical infrastructure by hostile foreign nation states is enough to make even anti-FUD experts wonder about how “low-probability” a major attack is.

The Associated Press reported last month on security researcher Brian Wallace’s discovery that hackers had penetrated Calpine Corp., a power producer with 82 plants operating in 18 states and Canada.

While accurate attribution of attacks is notoriously difficult, digital evidence pointed to Iran. Wallace found that the hackers had already taken engineering drawings, some labeled “mission critical,” that were detailed enough to let the intruders, “knock out electricity flowing to millions of homes.”

And this was just one incident of about a dozen during the past decade in which, “sophisticated foreign hackers have gained enough remote access to control the operations networks that keep the lights on,” the AP said, quoting anonymous experts.

 

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