Hostile nations have breached U.S. infrastructure. But don’t panic

For years, government officials and security experts have warned that the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure is drastically porous – vulnerable to cyberattacks that could take down the entire energy grid. Those warnings have been tempered recently, but the possibility remains

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Credit: National Archives and Records Administration (modified)

Don’t worry too much. But don’t be too happy either.

That seems to be the mixed message to Americans who rely on the nation’s critical infrastructure for just about everything that defines modern life: Lights, heat, air conditioning, clean water, transportation, appliances, TV, the expanding Internet of Things (IoT) and, of course, social media.

There has been ongoing, sometimes fierce, debate for more than a decade about the likelihood of a cyberattack taking down the grid and other industrial control systems (ICS), not just for a few days or weeks, but for months or even a year or more.

Obviously, nothing of that scale has hit the nation yet. But the topic hit front pages and major TV news shows recently because retired ABC TV “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel is now on tour promoting his new book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” in which he contends that not only is the nation’s critical infrastructure vulnerable to cyberattacks, but that multiple hostile nation states have already breached those systems and that the U.S. has no plan in place to cope with a catastrophic attack. He told TV interviewers that he and his wife are concerned enough that, “we decided we were going to buy enough freeze-dried food for all of our kids and their kids."

Koppel began to research the subject after hearing multiple warnings from top government officials and private sector security experts about those vulnerabilities.

The warnings go back years, coming from people like former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who said in 2012 that a major cyberattack could amount to a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Panetta also said at the time that the U.S. was at “a pre-9/11 moment.”

James Lewis, director and senior fellow of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in November 2009, that if major electrical generators went down, it would require three or four months just to order replacements.

“It's not like if we break one, we can go down to the hardware store and get a replacement,” he said.

Other officials say there is no reason to panic. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in a "statement for the record" less than two months ago before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he believes the chances of a “Cyber Armageddon” are remote.

But, he acknowledged ICS vulnerabilities to what sounded like death by a thousand cuts. “We foresee an ongoing series of low-to-moderate level cyber attacks from a variety of sources over time, which will impose cumulative costs on U.S. economic competitiveness and national security,” he said.

And he essentially admitted that U.S. infrastructure has been breached. “… foreign actors are reconnoitering and developing access to US critical infrastructure systems, which might be quickly exploited for disruption if an adversary’s intent became hostile,” he said.

Clapper named hostile nation states including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, but especially Russia, which he said has developed the capability to remotely hack at least three ICS vendors, “so that customers downloaded malicious software designed to facilitate exploitation directly from the vendors’ websites,” he said.

Meanwhile, ICS-CERT (Industrial Control Systems Computer Emergency Readiness Team) reported in March that it had received reports of 245 ICS incidents in 2014, more than half of which were advanced persistent threats (APT).

And USA Today reported in September that cyber attackers had successfully breached the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) 159 times between October 2010 and October 2014.

The bottom line, according to a range of experts, is that while Clapper is probably correct that a catastrophic attack is unlikely, it is very much possible.

As Chris Petersen, CTO and cofounder of LogRhythm, put it, “nation states like Russia know that to actually do something harmful would be considered an act of war by the U.S.

chris petersen

Chris Petersen, CTO and cofounder, LogRhythm

“However, just as Russia paraded mobile ballistic missiles during the Cold War, they are equally as interested in parading their cyber capabilities,” he said, adding that most hostile nation states want their enemies to know about their capabilities, but would only use them in a worst-case situation – the cyber equivalent of a balance of terror.

Petersen and others have also said in the past that nation states like China and Russia want to get inside U.S. ICS less for destructive purposes and more for espionage and political leverage, as a deterrent against U.S. policies they find objectionable.

Alan Berman, president of DRI International, noted that “having access and doing damage are two very different consequences,” of cyber intrusions.

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