US Electric Grid Hacked: Perpetrators Could Have Shut Down the System

-edited

Hackers broke into the US electric grid with spearphishing techniques targeting contractors with system access.

The Wall Street Journal has a detailed report out today regarding a sophisticated, and successful attack by hackers into the US electric grid. The hackers could have temporarily shut off power.

The Journal claims Russia is responsible. I hate such assumptions. In the absence of hard proof, the hack could have come from China, North Korea, Israel, or even the US. Even if Russian hackers did this, there is a difference between "Russian" and "Russia".

Early victims

In the summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence officials saw signs of a campaign to hack American utilities, says Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity and communications program. The tools and tactics suggested the perpetrators were Russian. Intelligence agencies notified Homeland Security, Ms. Manfra says.

Mr. Vitello of All-Ways Excavating has no idea how the hackers got into his email account. He doesn’t recall reading CFE’s websites or clicking on tainted email attachments. Nonetheless, the intrusion was part of the Russian campaign, according to the security companies that studied the hack.

On March 2, 2017, the attackers used Mr. Vitello’s account to send the mass email to customers, which was intended to herd recipients to a website secretly taken over by the hackers.

Once Mr. Vitello realized his email had been hijacked, he tried to warn his contacts not to open any email attachments from him. The hackers blocked the message.

Sneak Attack

Hackers sent bogus emails from the account of Oregon construction contractor Mike Vitello to herd recipients to a website they had secretly taken over, called imageliners.com. Hackers then used the site to seek access to contractors that do business with U.S. power utilities.

All-Ways Excavating is a government contractor and bids for jobs with agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates dozens of federally owned hydroelectric facilities.

One [email] went to Dan Kauffman Excavating Inc., in Lincoln City, Ore., with the subject line: “Please DocuSign Signed Agreement—Funding Project.”

Office manager Corinna Sawyer thought the wording was strange and emailed Mr. Vitello: “Just received this from your email, I assume you have been hacked.”

Back came a response from the intruders who controlled Mr. Vitello’s account: “I did send it.”

Ms. Sawyer, still suspicious, called Mr. Vitello, who told her the email, like the earlier one, was fake.

Federal officials say the attackers looked for ways to bridge the divide between the utilities’ corporate networks, which are connected to the internet, and their critical-control networks, which are walled off from the web for security purposes.

The bridges sometimes come in the form of “jump boxes,” computers that give technicians a way to move between the two systems. If not well defended, these junctions could allow operatives to tunnel under the moat and pop up inside the castle walls.

In briefings to utilities last summer, Jonathan Homer, industrial-control systems cybersecurity chief for Homeland Security, said the Russians had penetrated the control-system area of utilities through poorly protected jump boxes. The attackers had “legitimate access, the same as a technician,” he said in one briefing, and were positioned to take actions that could have temporarily knocked out power.

Attack Still Ongoing

The hack started in 2016 and is still ongoing. The Journal cited many other contractors who were hacked the same way as Vitello. Here's a recent hack.

Vello Koiv, president of VAK Construction Engineering Services in Beaverton, Ore., which does subcontracting for the Army Corps, PacifiCorp, Bonneville and Avista Corp. , a utility in Spokane, Wash., says someone at his company took the bait from one of the tainted emails, but his computer technicians caught the problem, so “it was never a full-blown event.” Avista says it doesn’t comment on cyberattacks.

Mr. Koiv says he continued to get tainted emails in 2018. “Whether they’re Russian or not, I don’t know. But someone is still trying to infiltrate our server.”

Last fall, All-Ways Excavating was again hacked.

Battlefield Prepared

Industry experts say Russian government hackers likely remain inside some systems, undetected and awaiting further orders.

What Russia has done is prepare the battlefield without pulling the trigger,” says Robert P. Silvers, former assistant secretary for cyber policy at Homeland Security and now a law partner at Paul Hastings LLP.

Assumptions

Once again, we have assumptions that "Russia is Responsible". The excuse: "The tools and tactics suggested the perpetrators were Russian."

It's a bit of a leap to go from that assumption to the WSJ headline.

Scary Bottom Line

Assumptions aside, someone was able to hack into companies responsible for the US electric grid, gaining technical abilities to shut it down.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

Comments
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WildBull
WildBull

And they want to put 100,000,000 networked autonomous vehicles on the road....

KidHorn
KidHorn

The only way to defend against someone stealing a user name/password is to also require another level of authentication. Like you need a security certificate on the client computer or a security card or maybe you have to answer security questions in addition or a combo of things. Allowing access with a simple user name and password is idiotic in this day and age.

JonSellers
JonSellers

Ran across this same hack at my last place of employment. We produced pipeline monitoring equipment. Hackers sent a fake Docusign agreement to one of our internal paralegals. The document looked perfect and we get them legitimately on occasion. She clicked on it, and it asked for a userid/password combo, so of course she put in her corporate credentials. The hacker used that to log into her Microsoft Office 365 email account. That gave him access to her contact list and off we went. We (IT) immediately forced everyone off of O365 and forced a password change. Following up with contacting all of her contacts.

Sechel
Sechel

This is where our political system has broken down. Do we even listen to our experts. We've had one assessment after another that the grid needs to be beefed up and what are we doing? Building a wall to maintain a more demographically white America and enable Trump to maybe win a second term as President. This is idiocy.

Sechel
Sechel

Yes. Israel attacked the United States? Or maybe the U.K. Is this serious Mish?

BillSanDiego
BillSanDiego

Is this going to turn out to be like the Russian intrusion into the Vermont power company system that, it turned out, was not even connected to the Internet?

silvermitt
silvermitt

I really want to comment on this, but would cause all kinds of problems for my husband, if I did. All I can say is that the American utility heads are woefully unprepared for this, and as it would hurt the bottom line for shareholders, doubtful they'd ever truly fund a stopage to hackers.

gregggg
gregggg

ML1
ML1

Why do contractors have "system access" to electric grid?

Why does anybody have "system access" to electric grid?

It is like information security 101 that there should be NO system access to the electric grid from internet.

compsult
compsult

critical systems should be using SElinux, like the NSA uses. I'd lay odds that this was another Windows system that was compromised.

Curious-Cat
Curious-Cat

Build a wall to keep out the hackers?