Entries Tagged "utilities"

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Cyberwarfare Policy

National Journal has an excellent article on cyberwar policy. I agree with the author’s comments on The Atlantic blog:

Would the United States ever use a more devastating weapon, perhaps shutting off the lights in an adversary nation? The answer is, almost certainly no, not unless America were attacked first.

To understand why, forget about the cyber dimension for a moment. Imagine that some foreign military had flown over a power substation and Brazil and dropped a bomb on it, depriving electricity to millions of people, as well as the places they work, the hospitals they visit, and the transportation they use. If there were no official armed conflict between Brazil and its attacker, the bombing would be illegal under international law. That’s a pretty basic test. But even if there were a declared war, or a recognized state of hostilities, knocking out vital electricity to millions of citizens—who presumably are not soldiers in the fight—would fail a number of other basic requirements of the laws of armed conflict. For starters, it could be considered disproportionate, particularly if Brazil hadn’t launched any similar sized offensive on its adversary. Shutting off electricity to whole cities can effectively paralyze them. And the bombing would clearly target non-combatants. The government uses electricity, yes, but so does the entire civilian population.

Now add the cyber dimension. If the effect of a hacker taking down the power grid is the same as a bomber—that is, knocking out electrical power—then the same rules apply. That essentially was the conclusion of a National Academies of Sciences report in April. The authors write, “During acknowledged armed conflict (notably when kinetic and other means are also being used against the same target nation), cyber attack is governed by all the standard law of armed conflict. …If the effects of a kinetic attack are such that the attack would be ruled out on such grounds, a cyber attack that would cause similar effects would also be ruled out.”


According to a report in The Guardian, military planners refrained from launching a broad cyber attack against Serbia during the Kosovo conflict for fear of committing war crimes. The Pentagon theoretically had the power to “bring Serbia’s financial systems to a halt” and to go after the personal accounts of Slobodan Milosevic, the newspaper reported. But when the NATO-led bombing campaign was in full force, the Defense Department’s general counsel issued guidance on cyber war that said the law of (traditional) war applied.

The military ran into this same dilemma four years later, during preparations to invade Iraq in 2003. Planners considered whether to launch a massive attack on the Iraqi financial system in advance of the conventional strike. But they stopped short when they realized that the same networks used by Iraqi banks were also used by banks in France. Releasing a vicious computer virus into the system could potentially harm America’s allies. Some planners also worried that the contagion could spread to the United States. It could have been the cyber equivalent of nuclear fallout.

A 240-page Rand study by Martin Libicki—”Cyberdefense and Cyberwar“—came to the same conclusion:

Predicting what an attack can do requires knowing how the system and its operators will respond to signs of dysfunction and knowing the behavior of processes and systems associated with the system being attacked. Even then, cyberwar operations neither directly harm individuals nor destroy equipment (albeit with some exceptions). At best, these operations can confuse and frustrate operators of military systems, and then only temporarily. Thus, cyberwar can only be a support function for other elements of warfare, for instance, in disarming the enemy.

Commenting on the Rand report:

The report backs its findings by measuring probable outcomes to cyberattacks and determining that the results are too scattered to carry out accurate predictions. This is coupled with the problem of countering an attack. It is difficult to determine who conducted a specific cyberattack so any counter strikes or retaliations could backfire. Rather than going on the offensive, the United States should pursue diplomacy and attempt to find and prosecute the cybercriminals involved in an initial strike.

Libicki said that the military can attempt a cyberattack for a specific combat operation, but it would be a guessing game when trying to gauge the operation’s success since any result from the cyberattack would be unclear.

Instead the Rand report suggests the government invest in bolstering military networks, which as we know, have the same vulnerabilities as civilian networks.

I wrote about cyberwar back in 2005.

Posted on December 1, 2009 at 6:59 AMView Comments

Hacking the Brazil Power Grid

We’ve seen lots of rumors about attacks against the power grid, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, of people hacking the power grid. President Obama mentioned it in his May cybersecurity speech: “In other countries cyberattacks have plunged entire cities into darkness.” Seems like the source of these rumors has been Brazil:

Several prominent intelligence sources confirmed that there were a series of cyber attacks in Brazil: one north of Rio de Janeiro in January 2005 that affected three cities and tens of thousands of people, and another, much larger event beginning on Sept. 26, 2007.

That one in the state of Espirito Santo affected more than three million people in dozens of cities over a two-day period, causing major disruptions. In Vitoria, the world’s largest iron ore producer had seven plants knocked offline, costing the company $7 million. It is not clear who did it or what the motive was.

60 Minutes called me during the research of this story. They had a lot more unsubstantiated information than they’re provided here: names of groups that were involved, allegations of extortion, government coverups, and so on. It would be nice to know what really happened.

EDITED TO ADD (11/11): Wired says that the attacks were caused by sooty insulators. The counterargument, of course, is that sooty insulators are just the cover story because the whole hacker thing is secret.

Wired also mentions that, in an interview last month, Richard Clarke named Brazil as a victim of these attacks.

Posted on November 11, 2009 at 12:19 PMView Comments

Pirate Terrorists in Chesapeake Bay

This is a great movie-plot threat:

Pirates could soon find their way to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. That’s assuming that a liquefied natural gas terminal gets built at Sparrows Point.

The folks over at the LNG Opposition Team have long said that building an LNG plant on the shores of the bay would surely invite terrorists to attack. They say a recent increase in piracy off the Somali coast is fodder for their argument.

Remember—if you don’t like something, claim that it will enable, embolden, or entice terrorists. Works every time.

Posted on May 18, 2009 at 1:38 PMView Comments

U.S. Power Grid Hacked, Everyone Panic!

Yesterday I talked to at least a dozen reporters about this breathless Wall Street Journal story:

Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and former national-security officials.

The spies came from China, Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls. The intruders haven’t sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war.

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” said a senior intelligence official. “So have the Russians.”


Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, the senior intelligence official said. He added, “If we go to war with them, they will try to turn them on.”

Officials said water, sewage and other infrastructure systems also were at risk.

“Over the past several years, we have seen cyberattacks against critical infrastructures abroad, and many of our own infrastructures are as vulnerable as their foreign counterparts,” Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently told lawmakers. “A number of nations, including Russia and China, can disrupt elements of the U.S. information infrastructure.”

Read the whole story; there aren’t really any facts in it. I don’t know what’s going on; maybe it’s just budget season and someone is jockeying for a bigger slice.

Honestly, I am much more worried about random errors and undirected worms in the computers running our infrastructure than I am about the Chinese military. I am much more worried about criminal hackers than I am about government hackers. I wrote about the risks to our infrastructure here, and about Chinese hacking here.

And I wrote about last year’s reports of international hacking of our SCADA control systems here.

Posted on April 9, 2009 at 12:02 PMView Comments

Stealing Commodities

Before his arrest, Tom Berge stole lead roof tiles from several buildings in south-east England, including the Honeywood Museum in Carshalton, the Croydon parish church, and the Sutton high school for girls. He then sold those tiles to scrap metal dealers.

As a security expert, I find this story interesting for two reasons. First, amongst increasingly ridiculous attempts to ban, or at least censor, Google Earth, lest it help the terrorists, here is an actual crime that relied on the service: Berge needed Google Earth for reconnaissance.

But more interesting is the discrepancy between the value of the lead tiles to the original owner and to the thief. The Sutton school had to spend £10,000 to buy new lead tiles; the Croydon Church had to repair extensive water damage after the theft. But Berge only received £700 a ton from London scrap metal dealers.

This isn’t an isolated story; the same dynamic is in play with other commodities as well.

There is an epidemic of copper wiring thefts worldwide; copper is being stolen out of telephone and power stations—and off poles in the streets—and thieves have killed themselves because they didn’t understand the dangers of high voltage. Homeowners are returning from holiday to find the copper pipes stolen from their houses. In 2001, scrap copper was worth 70 cents per pound. In April 2008, it was worth $4.

Gasoline siphoning became more common as pump prices rose. And used restaurant grease, formerly either given away or sold for pennies to farmers, is being stolen from restaurant parking lots and turned into biofuels. Newspapers and other recyclables are stolen from curbs, and trees are stolen and resold as Christmas trees.

Iron fences have been stolen from buildings and houses, manhole covers have been stolen from the middle of streets, and aluminum guard rails have been stolen from roadways. Steel is being stolen for scrap, too. In 2004 in Ukraine, thieves stole an entire steel bridge.

These crimes are particularly expensive to society because the replacement cost is much higher than the thief’s profit. A manhole cover is worth $5–$10 as scrap, but it costs $500 to replace, including labor. A thief may take $20 worth of copper from a construction site, but do $10,000 in damage in the process. And even if the thieves don’t get to the copper or steel, the increased threat means more money being spent on security to protect those commodities in the first place.

Security can be viewed as a tax on the honest, and these thefts demonstrate that our taxes are going up. And unlike many taxes, we don’t benefit from their collection. The cost to society of retrofitting manhole covers with locks, or replacing them with less resalable alternatives, is high; but there is no benefit other than reducing theft.

These crimes are a harbinger of the future: evolutionary pressure on our society, if you will. Criminals are often referred to as social parasites; they leech off society but provide no useful benefit. But they are an early warning system of societal changes. Unfettered by laws or moral restrictions, they can be the first to respond to changes that the rest of society will be slower to pick up on. In fact, currently there’s a reprieve. Scrap metal prices are all down from last year’s—copper is currently $1.62 per pound, and lead is half what Berge got—and thefts are down along with them.

We’ve designed much of our infrastructure around the assumptions that commodities are cheap and theft is rare. We don’t protect transmission lines, manhole covers, iron fences, or lead flashing on roofs. But if commodity prices really are headed for new higher stable points, society will eventually react and find alternatives for these items—or find ways to protect them. Criminals were the first to point this out, and will continue to exploit the system until it restabilizes.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Guardian.

Posted on April 3, 2009 at 5:25 AMView Comments

Remote-Controlled Thermostats

People just don’t understand security:

Mr. Somsel, in an interview Thursday, said he had done further research and was concerned that the radio signal—or the Internet instructions that would be sent, in an emergency, from utilities’ central control stations to the broadcasters sending the FM signal—could be hacked into.

That is not possible, said Nicole Tam, a spokeswoman for P.G.& E. who works with the pilot program in Stockton. Radio pages “are encrypted and encoded,” Ms. Tam said.

I wonder what she’ll think when someone hacks the system?

Posted on December 11, 2008 at 6:55 AMView Comments

Hacking Power Networks

The CIA unleashed a big one at a SANS conference:

On Wednesday, in New Orleans, US Central Intelligence Agency senior analyst Tom Donahue told a gathering of 300 US, UK, Swedish, and Dutch government officials and engineers and security managers from electric, water, oil & gas and other critical industry asset owners from all across North America, that “We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyber attacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.”

According to Mr. Donahue, the CIA actively and thoroughly considered the benefits and risks of making this information public, and came down on the side of disclosure.

I’ll bet. There’s nothing like an vague unsubstantiated rumor to forestall reasoned discussion. But, of course, everyone is writing about it anyway.

SANS’s Alan Paller is happy to add details:

In the past two years, hackers have in fact successfully penetrated and extorted multiple utility companies that use SCADA systems, says Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute, an organization that hosts a crisis center for hacked companies. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been extorted, and possibly more. It’s difficult to know, because they pay to keep it a secret,” Paller says. “This kind of extortion is the biggest untold story of the cybercrime industry.”

And to up the fear factor:

The prospect of cyberattacks crippling multicity regions appears to have prompted the government to make this information public. The issue “went from ‘we should be concerned about to this’ to ‘this is something we should fix now,’ ” said Paller. “That’s why, I think, the government decided to disclose this.”

More rumor:

An attendee of the meeting said that the attack was not well-known through the industry and came as a surprise to many there. Said the person who asked to remain anonymous, “There were apparently a couple of incidents where extortionists cut off power to several cities using some sort of attack on the power grid, and it does not appear to be a physical attack.”

And more hyperbole from someone in the industry:

Over the past year to 18 months, there has been “a huge increase in focused attacks on our national infrastructure networks, . . . and they have been coming from outside the United States,” said Ralph Logan, principal of the Logan Group, a cybersecurity firm.

It is difficult to track the sources of such attacks, because they are usually made by people who have disguised themselves by worming into three or four other computer networks, Logan said. He said he thinks the attacks were launched from computers belonging to foreign governments or militaries, not terrorist groups.”

I’m more than a bit skeptical here. To be sure—fake staged attacks aside—there are serious risks to SCADA systems (Ganesh Devarajan gave a talk at DefCon this year about some potential attack vectors), although at this point I think they’re more a future threat than present danger. But this CIA tidbit tells us nothing about how the attacks happened. Were they against SCADA systems? Were they against general-purpose computer, maybe Windows machines? Insiders may have been involved, so was this a computer security vulnerability at all? We have no idea.

Cyber-extortion is certainly on the rise; we see it at Counterpane. Primarily it’s against fringe industries—online gambling, online gaming, online porn—operating offshore in countries like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. It is going mainstream, but this is the first I’ve heard of it targeting power companies. Certainly possible, but is that part of the CIA rumor or was it tacked on afterwards?

And here’s list of power outages. Which ones were hacker caused? Some details would be nice.

I’d like a little bit more information before I start panicking.

EDITED TO ADD (1/23): Slashdot thread.

Posted on January 22, 2008 at 2:24 PMView Comments

Melbourne Water-Supply Security Risk

Here’s a scary hacking target: the remote-control system for Melbourne’s water supply. According to TheAge:

Remote access to the Brooklyn pumping station and the rest of the infrastructure means the entire network can be controlled from any of seven main Melbourne Water sites, or by key staff such as Mr Woodland from home via a secure internet connection using Citrix’s Metaframe or a standard web browser.

SCADA systems are hard to hack, but SSL connections—at least, that’s what I presume they mean by “secure internet connection”—are much easier.

(Seen on Benambra.)

Posted on March 11, 2005 at 9:17 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.