Hacktivists Could Bring Down Grid

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 @ 01:02 PM gHale

By Nicholas Sheble
The hacking group Anonymous may be capable of causing a limited power outage through cyber attack soon, is the feeling of security officials with the U.S. Government.

The director of the National Security Agency (NSA) warned Anonymous could have the ability within the next year or two to bring about such an act, according to a report in the Tuesday issue of The Wall Street Journal.

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General Keith Alexander, NSA’s director, provided his assessment in meetings at the White House and in other private sessions. While he hasn’t publicly expressed his concerns about the potential for Anonymous to disrupt power supplies, he has warned publicly about an emerging ability by cyber attackers to disable or even damage computer networks.

Anonymous has never listed a power blackout as a goal, but some U.S. officials believe it seeks a more disruptive direction. An attack on a network would be consistent with recent public claims and threats by the group. As example, last week Anonymous announced a plan to shut down the Internet on March 31 in a move they are calling Operation Global Blackout.

The electric grid has many backup systems that allow utilities to restore power quickly if there is a blackout from a cyber attack or hardware malfunction.

Attacks by Anonymous

  • December 2010: Attacks groups and individuals that tangled with WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.
  • February 2011: Followers break into computer systems of California Internet-security company HBGary Federal; release tens of thousands of internal emails online. Company chief executive resigns.
  • Aug. 14, 2011: Hacks a Bay Area Rapid Transit website to protest the rail system’s move to temporarily shut down cell phone service.
  • Jan. 19, 2012: Attacks Justice Department website and apparently knocks it offline to retaliate against shutdown of a media-downloading site.
  • Feb. 12, 2012: Announces a plan to shut down the Internet on March 31.
  • Feb. 17, 2012: Attacks two sites of the Federal Trade Commission.

Source: WSJ research

The NSA believes that, for now, the cyber threat to the power grid is limited. The countries that could most quickly develop and use cyber means to destroy part of the grid, like China and Russia, have little incentive to do so. Those with more incentive, like Iran or North Korea, don’t yet have the capability.

Nicholas Sheble (nsheble@isssource.com) is an engineering writer and technical editor in Raleigh, NC.

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