A malicious piece of malware infected three regional power grids in Ukraine, which plunged hundreds of thousands of homes into darkness last week, according to researchers. The charade gave experts a glimpse of what a major attack on America’s power grid might look like.
According to the report, the power outage was a consequence of malware that disconnected electrical substations. They claim the malware led to “destructive events,” which resulted in a major black out. Researchers from the firm iSIGHT Partner claim they have collected samples of the code that contaminated at least three regional operators.
“It’s a milestone because we’ve definitely seen targeted destructive events against energy before — oil firms, for instance — but never the event which causes the blackout,” John Hultquist, head of iSIGHT’s cyber espionage intelligence practice, told sources. “It’s the major scenario we’ve all been concerned about for so long.”(1)
Experts from antivirus provider ESET verified that various Ukrainian power authorities were victims of “BlackEnergy,” a package discovered two years ago that is as ominous as it sounds and renders infected computers useless. Recently, ESET discovered that BlackEnergy had been updated with a new component dubbed KillDisk, which decimates essential parts of a computer hard drive and cripples industrial control systems.(1)
In the past few years, the charlatans behind BlackEnergy have increased their destructive capabilities. Late last year, for instance, advisory from Ukraine’s Computer Emergency Response Team reported that the KillDisk module infected media outlets in the country, which destroyed videos and other web content that proved to be unrecoverable.(1)
These episodes of distress gave researchers an idea of what a major cyber attack in the United States could look like. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on American infrastructure would bring the economy to a grinding halt. Such an attack isn’t just theoretical, however. While the threat of nuclear war still exists, it has significantly retreated in wake of cyber attacks, explains American broadcast journalist Ted Koppel in his book Lights Out: A Cyber Attack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.
“The internet provides instant, often anonymous access to the operations that enable our critical infrastructure systems to function safely and efficiently. In March 2015 the Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that the air traffic control system is vulnerable to cyber attacks. This, the report concluded with commendable understatement, could disrupt air traffic control operations. If, however, an adversary of this country has its goal inflicting maximum damage and pain on the largest number of Americans, there may not be a more productive target than one of our electrical power grids.”(2)
Given the unprecedented nature of the attack, the federal government currently does not have a plan of action if such a debacle were to occur. There are plans for earthquakes, floods, tornado and hurricanes, but no such plan for a major cyber attack. To make matters worse, a massive cyber attack would last longer and cover a wider area than most natural disasters.
A cyber attack on one of America’s three major power grids would shroud millions of people into darkness for weeks, or even months. This means there would be no electric light, heat, refrigeration, running water or waste disposal. According to Koppel, there is a general consensus among experts that China and Russia are capable of launching a major cyber attack against the United States but probably won’t. Nevertheless, there is growing concern that Russia, North Korea and terrorist groups like ISIS could use the internet as a means for mass destruction.
According to a recent report provided by iSIGHT, a dangerous increase in malware-controlled conflict could have reverberations for industrialized nations across the globe.