Hackers Gain “Switch-Flipping” Access To U.S. Power Grid

The Federalist Papers has reported on the threat posed to the U.S. power grid from multiple sources; Iran, North Korea, and even the Sun can all cause immense damage through an EMP strike on the country, with the former two being through nuclear weapons, and the latter through a solar storm. However, there is yet another risk to the grid that officials are having to address: hackers.

Everywhere we go, hacking seems to be a threat. On our personal devices, on our identities, even on our children’s toys, hackers always lurk in the digital shadows aiming to get whatever they can from our personal lives.

While such hacking threats are certainly scary, the even scarier ones are the large-scale hacks that can compromise the lives of tens of millions of Americans simultaneously. A hack on the power grid would do exactly that, and hackers have the ability to do it, Wired is now reporting.

Security firm Symantec is warning that a series of recent hacker attacks not only compromised energy companies in the US and Europe but also resulted in the intruders gaining hands-on access to power grid operations—enough control that they could have induced blackouts on American soil at will.

Symantec on Wednesday revealed a new campaign of attacks by a group it is calling Dragonfly 2.0, which it says targeted dozens of energy companies in the spring and summer of this year. In more than 20 cases, Symantec says the hackers successfully gained access to the target companies’ networks. And at a handful of US power firms and at least one company in Turkey—none of which Symantec will name—their forensic analysis found that the hackers obtained what they call operational access: control of the interfaces power company engineers use to send actual commands to equipment like circuit breakers, giving them the ability to stop the flow of electricity into US homes and businesses.

Eric Chien, a Symantec security analyst, stated that “There’s a difference between being a step away from conducting sabotage and actually being in a position to conduct sabotage … being able to flip the switch on power generation. We’re now talking about on-the-ground technical evidence this could happen in the US, and there’s nothing left standing in the way except the motivation of some actor out in the world.”

This is the first time that hackers have displayed such an ability to hack into American systems. The only comparable grid attacks were the 2015 and 2016 hacks into the Ukrainian grid.

Information regarding the intrusion leads the researchers to identify a possible suspect for the attacks.

As Symantec’s report on the new intrusions details, the company has tracked the Dragonfly 2.0 attacks back to at least December of 2015, but found that they ramped up significantly in the first half of 2017, particularly in the US, Turkey, and Switzerland. Its analysis of those breaches found that they began with spearphishing emails that tricked victims into opening a malicious attachment—the earliest they found was a fake invitation to a New Year’s Eve party—or so-called watering hole attacks that compromise a website commonly visited by targets to hack victims’ computers.

The hackers were able to penetrate deep enough into the system to get a screenshot of the control panels for the grid’s operations.

“That’s exactly what you’d do if you were to attempt sabotage,” Chien noted. “You’d take these sorts of screenshots to understand what you had to do next, like literally which switch to flip.”

While they may have been able to shut down the grid right there, it is possible that they may be waiting for an opportune time, such as an armed conflict or major political event to coincide with the shutdown.

“If these attacks are from a nation state,” Chien said, “one would expect sabotage only in relation to a political event.”

With this in mind, it is now more important than ever to harden the electrical grid against hacking and EMP attacks, and to maintain social stability in the Union. Citizens, localities, states, and the federal government must work in their various sectors to keep order and adhere to our principles.

Times when we are under threat are when we must stick to our founding principles most adamantly.