Just hours before reports emerged that hackers were for the first time attempting to take over specific infrastructure plants, a former CIA director told ABC News that weaknesses in critical infrastructure systems in the U.S. were among the country’s greatest threats to national security.
“One of [the greatest threats] is the vulnerability of our electricity grid to hacking and to physical attack on things like transformers,” former CIA Director John Woolsey said Tuesday. “We have 18 critical infrastructures in the United States: water, food, sewage, etc. All of the 17 others depend on the electrical grid.
“So the vulnerability of that grid to things like hacking is a very serious problem,” he said.
The same day, officials at the Department of Homeland Security confirmed a report by The Associated Press that last month hackers targeted critical infrastructure systems with malicious computer code. While it is hardly the first time hackers have attempted to gain access to infrastructure systems, experts said it was first time they employed a certain type of “worm,” called Stuxnet, that was created to seize complete control of a specific critical infrastructure location.
“Most of the activities we have seen over the past several months has involved intrusions into enterprise or corporate networks that’s the front office area of a control plant or power plant — those intrusions aren’t coming in,” Sean McGurk, director of control system security at the National Cyber Security Division, told ABC News. “The activity we have seen most recently that is most interesting, has to do with actually accessing control networks… Now the control networks are those networks that actually perform the physical functions, whether its building automobiles, generating power or purify water.”
McGurk said the attack was unique mostly because it was “very targeted, very sophisticated.”
But often, the more complex the attack is, the more bread crumbs are left for investigators to trace back to its source.
“Attribution is really the key that we are focusing on right now,” McGurk said. “Often these malicious attackers will leave footprints behind by which we are able to identify the activity, because this code is very complex and they’ve used multiple layers of encryption.”
Though most of the recent cyber attacks on infrastructure have taken place abroad, the DHS also confirmed that it has been deployed Cyber Emergency Response Teams more than a dozen times to help wage the digital war in the U.S. The teams have conducted 50 assessments and helped investigate 13 cyber security incidents so far, the AP reported.
America’s electricity infrastructure, often referred to as a “grid,” is composed of more than 5,300 power plants across the nation — including nuclear power plants — which send electricity down thousands of miles of complex distribution lines to more than 140 million customers, according to the National Infrastructure Protection Plan as posted on the DHS website. To coordinate the massive effort, several computer systems are employed.
“The electricity infrastructure is highly automated and controlled by utilities and regional grid operators using sophisticated energy management systems that are supplied by supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to keep the system in balance,” the report said.
Up to 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure is operated by private companies, according to the AP. Vulnerabilities often appear to hackers due to out-dated security measures, McGurk said. The DHS’ Cyber Emergency Response Teams were created to provide on-site incident response in addition to analysis in cooperation with the private companies.
Electricity is just one of the 18 “critical infrastructure and key resources sectors” identified by the DHS, also including water, finance and communications systems.
Many of these systems — like electricity and information technology systems — are interdependent, cyber security and communications assistant secretary Greg Garcia told attendees during the 2008 National Cyber Security Awareness Month.
“IT systems and networks, as you all know, are the nervous system of our country’s critical infrastructure,” Garcia said. “So just think of it. We depend on information technology for seemingly everything. Like managing food processing, water purification, electricity generation and distribution. Online banking, telephone transmission. Filing your news stories on time, reporters. Dispatching emergency services and keeping our nation safe.
“So protecting cyberspace in my view is as important to our national interests as protecting our land and our sea borders,” he said.