U.S. officials told the press that Russia hacked into the country’s electric grid, but the affected utility said it had only found malware on one device that was not connected to the grid.
The Washington Post on Saturday cited anonymous U.S. officials claiming that Russian hackers breached the electric grid. The article, titled “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electric grid through a utility in Vermont,” led to several politicians making alarming statements on Russia and hackers.
The Vermont utility referenced by The Washington Post, the Burlington Electric Department, published a statement refuting the claims.
Last week, just as the Obama administration announced retaliation against Russia over the presidential election cyberattacks, the DHS and the FBI published a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) to detail the tools and infrastructure used by Russian civilian and military intelligence services in attacks aimed at networks and endpoints associated with the election and various other government, political, and private sector entities.
This malicious activity, dubbed by the U.S. government “Grizzly Steppe,” included attacks launched by two well-known Russia-linked threat groups tracked as APT28 (aka Fancy Bear, Pawn Storm, Strontium, Sofacy, Sednit and Tsar Team) and APT29 (aka Cozy Bear and CozyDuke).
However, security experts have criticized the U.S. government for failing to provide strong evidence that Russia did in fact attempt to interfere with the presidential election. Furthermore, some warned that the indicators of compromise (IoC) provided in the JAR are low quality and could lead to false positives.
After the Grizzly Steppe report was published, Burlington Electric conducted a scan of all its computers in an effort to determine if any devices had been infected with Grizzly Steppe malware. Suspicious Internet traffic was detected on a single computer, which had not been connected to the electric grid.
“There is no indication that either our electric grid or customer information has been compromised,” the Vermont utility stated. “Media reports stating that Burlington Electric was hacked or that the electric grid was breached are false.”
“Federal officials have indicated that this specific type of Internet traffic also has been observed elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric. It’s unfortunate that an official or officials improperly shared inaccurate information with one media outlet, leading to multiple inaccurate reports around the country,” it added.
The Washington Post has rewritten its story, clarifying that authorities had not actually found any evidence that the grid had been breached. However, experts say even the new headline, “Russian operation hacked a Vermont utility, showing risk to U.S. electrical grid security,” is FUD.
1. No they did not penetrate the grid. 2. The IOCs contained commodity malware – can’t attribute based off that alone. https://t.co/AMNMVzFpFW
— Robert M. Lee (@RobertMLee) December 31, 2016
On the other hand, many experts believe the U.S. power grid is vulnerable to cyberattacks.
“Based on existing intelligence, it is reasonable to assume that nation-states already possess all the information they need to launch such an attack on the U.S. power grid – they choose not to because of political implications,” Tim Layton, chief intelligence officer at SurfWatch Labs, said in a SecurityWeek column. “I also believe the USA possesses the same capabilities. It isn’t just nation-states that we need to be concerned with, as radical terrorist groups are highly motivated to bring harm to the American people and economy.”
While there is no evidence of destructive cyberattacks on the U.S. electric grid, such attacks have been launched in Ukraine. The Russian government is believed to be responsible for the December 2015 attack that caused severe power outages, and a recent incident may have also been caused by a cyberattack.
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