Energy firm points to hackers after Kiev power outage

Erm, it was hovering between -9˚C and -1˚C that day

High voltage power grid, in the sunset. Photo by SHutterstock

A cyber attack is suspected in connection with an outage of the Ukrainian power grid that affected homes around Kiev last weekend.

A substation in Pivnichna was cut off from the main power grid for about 75 minutes late on Saturday 17 December, lasting into the early hours of Sunday. As a result, houses and flats of the right bank district of Kiev* and neighbouring areas lost power.

Ukrenergo, a Ukrainian energy provider, said that “hacker attack and equipment failure are among the possible causes for the power failures”, according to local reports.

Moreno Carullo, co-founder and chief technical officer at Nozomi Networks, said, “These reports are reminiscent of an attack experienced at a similar time last December that left 225,000 Ukrainians cold at Christmas. Worryingly, if this does prove to be another cyberattack on the Ukrainian grid, it sets an uncomfortable precedent that similar attacks may occur annually at this time of year.”

The recent outage appears to centre at a transmission substation. These are used to transport electricity over long distances, with its primary function to raise/lower and control the voltage, provide power factor correction to protect from overloads, and perform checks to synchronise power flow between two adjacent power systems. A distribution substation is then used, closer to cities, to carry electricity to users.

“All this equipment (the transmission and the primary distribution substations) are automated and remotely controlled, while smaller ones maybe electro-mechanically operated and are certainly unsupervised,” according to Carullo.

“Substations have long been considered a weak point, with respect to cybersecurity, due to their remote location making them difficult to manage and monitor for disruptions. While some are completely disconnected, and are therefore considered safe from cyberattack, others form part of a Smart Grid which means they are part of a fully connected series of systems to allow for improved efficiency of the power grid.  However, with Smart Grid connectivity comes increased vulnerability to cyberattacks due to the connected nature of the entire grid,” he added.

A hacker who gains access to internet-connected control panels might be able to disable inverters and fire alarms, triggering blackouts and equipment damage to many households in one time. If hackers did attack Kviv's power grid - something that’s still the subject of investigation - then Russia will almost inevitably become the chief suspect, given recent (unresolved) conflicts between the two countries.

Alex Mathews, lead security evangelist at Positive Technologies, remains unconvinced that hackers caused the latest power outage in the Ukraine. Equipment failure can’t be ruled out as a cause, he pointed out.

“Power outages in winter time is a pretty common story for ex-USSR territories where the power equipment is old, so it can shut down when people use too many electric heaters, lamps and other appliances,” Mathews said. “Such power outages happen every year, even in big cities like Moscow, Petersburg and Kiev.”

The temperature in Kiev on the day ranged from a -1˚C maximum and a -9˚C minimum.

“On the other hand, we should recognise that the chances of successful cyber-attack on power grids are growing in the modern world due to internet,“ he added. ®

* Or Kyiv, as Ukrainians would have it; Kiev is the Russian pronunciation.

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