Feeds

Chinese crackers blamed for US power blackouts

Lights go out, firewalls come tumbling down

Boost IT visibility and business value

Chinese hackers have been blamed for two sets of cyber attacks that left US homes without electricity in recent years.

Two blackouts in Florida and the Northeast were at least partially caused by Chinese crackers, computer security experts told the National Journal Magazine.

The magazine bases its claims principally on Tim Bennett, former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, who said that US spooks told him back in 2003 that crackers working on behalf of the Chinese National Liberation Army had gained access to the network controlling power plants in the north eastern US.

This intrusion "may have precipitated" a power outage that affected large swathes of the US in August 2003. The blackout - which affected New York, Michigan, Ohio and parts of Canada - hit 50 million homes and was officially blamed on a cascading failure arising from a failure to deal with the outage of a set of high-voltage lines, which had a knock-on affect on around 100 power plants.

The spread of the Blaster worm at the time may have hampered communications, hampering efforts to fix the problem.

Bennett also blames a February blackout in south Florida that left three million homes without electricity on computer hackers. A second security consultant, speaking anonymously, said that the Florida hack was down to a Chinese PLA hacker who made a mistake while attempting to produce a map of Florida Power & Light’s systems. Power & Light blames an error by an engineer who disabled backup systems while making repairs on the outage. An official inquiry is ongoing.

Joel Brenner, the government’s senior counterintelligence official, was quizzed by the National Journal Magazine on the issue and said such attacks might be possible. Targeted Trojan attacks against senior executive and government officials in the West have been widely blamed on China, but attacks on utilities would be far more difficult to pull off.

Back in January CIA senior analyst Tom Donahue created controversy with claims that crackers have blackmailed foreign governments after disrupting the operating of utilities. Skeptics said the unspecified claims lack credibility, although other security experts subscribe to the possibility of attacks against Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems seriously.

SCADA systems lie at the heart of utility control networks. The devices allow utilities, such as electricity plants, to remotely control and monitor generation equipment and substations over phone lines, radio links and, in more and more cases, IP networks.

Interconnection between SCADA environments and corporate networks introduce new security risks that weren't so much of a concern in the previous era of closed control networks.

Reports of successful cyber attacks on utility systems are rare but not unprecedented.

Seven years ago a disgruntled ex-employee of an Australian hotel hacked into a water control system and swamped the grounds with sewage. In Russia, malicious crackers managed to take control of a gas pipeline for around a day in 1999. Closer to home, in the case of the latest US blackouts, the Slammer worm affected the corporate network at Ohio's inactive Davis-Besse nuclear plant and disabled a safety monitoring system for nearly five hours in January 2003. ®

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup

More from The Register

next story
Microsoft: We plan to CLEAN UP this here Windows Store town
Paid-for apps that provide free downloads? Really
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
Who needs hackers? 'Password1' opens a third of all biz doors
GPU-powered pen test yields more bad news about defences and passwords
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Hear ye, young cyber warriors of the realm: GCHQ wants you
Get involved, get a job and then never discuss work ever again
Chinese hackers spied on investigators of Flight MH370 - report
Classified data on flight's disappearance pinched
Microsoft cries UNINSTALL in the wake of Blue Screens of Death™
Cache crash causes contained choloric calamity
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
7 Elements of Radically Simple OS Migration
Avoid the typical headaches of OS migration during your next project by learning about 7 elements of radically simple OS migration.
BYOD's dark side: Data protection
An endpoint data protection solution that adds value to the user and the organization so it can protect itself from data loss as well as leverage corporate data.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?