Update: Federal officials and Burlington Electric now tell the Washington Post that the utility was not the target of Russian hackers, despite earlier reports. An updated version of the Utility Dive post is available here; the original post follows.
- United States officials found traces of a code traced to Russian hackers in the system of Vermont utility Burlington Electric, the Washington Post reports.
- While the code didn't disrupt the utility's operations, it did underscore fears among U.S. government officials that Russian cyberattackers are probing the grid for a future attack.
- News of the attack came after the Obama administration's decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats and levy sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over its determination that the government ordered attacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign last year.
The latest reported cyberattack on a U.S. utility highlights persisting fears that the nation's power grid could be susceptible to infiltration from foreign actors.
Though the incident at Burlington Electric was confined to a computer not attached to the utility's grid, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a joint analysis the attack by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) was "part of an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens."
In other countries, the agencies cautioned, "RIS actors conducted damaging and/or disruptive cyber-attacks, including attacks on critical infrastructure networks," such as the power grid.
It's not the first time Russians have been accused of attacking a foreign country's grid. Last year, reports surfaced that the Kremlin likely launched a series of cyberattacks on the Ukraininan grid, which lead to blackouts, though Russian officials denied any involvement.
According to the Post, the attackers sent fraudulent emails to Burlington Electric employees to trick them into handing over their passwords. Had they gained access to the wider grid, the costs could have been significant.
Last year, Lloyds of London estimated a worst case-scenario cyberattack could cost the U.S. up to $1 trillion and plunge the country into utter chaos. And results from a simulated grid attack in 2015 pushed the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) to draft a report calling for improvements in information sharing to protect the nation's critical infrastructure.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission then directed NERC to come up with an improved cybersecurity protocol this summer to address growing concerns over grid security. The "forward-looking, objective-based" standard will require security protocals, from supply-chain management for industrial control system hardware and software, as well as services linked to bulk electric system operations.
But how the incoming administration will tackle the cybersecurity issue remains to be seen. President-elect Donald Trump cast doubt on the viability of intelligence linking Russians to the cyberattacks that lead to email leaks from the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign. But he also acknowledged this week in a press conference that more cybersecurity might be "needed" following the Obama administration's moves to punish Russia for allegedly undermining the U.S. elections this year.