Kansas, We Have a Problem: Russians Hack U.S. Power Plants

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The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are working to help several US energy companies and manufacturing plants fight off intrusion from hackers. Most notably, the hack includes the Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant near Burlington, Kansas.

What Happened

Corporate computer systems for the power plants experienced hacking from outside sources. However, this did not have any operational impact. A spokeswoman for Wolf Creek nuclear power plant said, “There was absolutely no operational impact to Wolf Creek. The reason that it is true is that the operational computer systems are completely separate from the corporate network.”

In a joint statement, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security said, “There is no indication of a threat to public safety, as any potential impact appears to be limited to administrative and business networks.”

Robert M. Lee, the founder of the critical infrastructure cybersecurity firm Dragos, said of the hack, “These were business networks, not computer systems anywhere near the operational systems. On the one hand, it’s concerning. On the other, it’s far from anything near the industrial control systems.”

Was it Russia?

Current and former US officials suggest that Russia is the primary suspect in the attack. Investigators have not released any information as to who is suspected of hacking the energy systems.

Suspicion about Russian involvement stems in large part from recent history. While no “digital fingerprints” have definitively tied any group to the hack yet, the Russians have a history of hacking energy systems.

In 2014 the Department of Homeland Security warned that hackers had infected the networks of US electric companies with malware known as Black Energy. The hacks did not cause any operational damage.

A year later the Russians used Black Energy in a cyber-attack on Ukrainian electric utilities causing the first ever hack-induced blackouts. The hackers took down 1/5th the electric capacity of Kiev.

What Does It Mean?

The hacks that have intruded into US facilities are far from the attacks that caused power outages in Kiev. Experts say that any intrusion into infrastructure systems is extremely troubling, but that it is important not to exaggerate the risk. A Ukrainian style power take over may be the eventual goal, but it is not the current capability of the hackers.

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