Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

With hacking of US utilities, Russia could move from cyberespionage toward cyberwar

Even before the revelation on July 23 that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer systems of US electric utilities and could have caused blackouts, government agencies and electricity industry leaders were working to protect US customers and society as a whole. These developments, alarming as they might seem, are not new. But they highlight an important distinction of conflict in cyberspace: between probing and attacking.

Various adversaries – including Russia, but also China, North Korea and Iran – have been testing and mapping US industrial systems for years. Yet to date there has been no public acknowledgement of physical damage from a foreign cyberattack on US soil on the scale of Russia shutting off electricity in the Ukrainian capital or Iran attacking a Saudi Arabian government-owned oil company, destroying tens of thousands of computers and allegedly attempting to cause an explosion.

The US and its allies have substantial capabilities, too, some of which have reportedly been directed against foreign powers. Stuxnet, for instance, was a cyberattack often attributed to the US and Israel that disrupted Iran’s nuclear weapons development efforts.

The distinction between exploiting weaknesses to gather information – also known as “intelligence preparation of the battlefield” – and using those vulnerabilities to actually do damage is impossibly thin and depends on the intent of the people doing it. Intentions are notoriously difficult to figure out. In global cyberspace they may change depending on world events and international relations. The dangers – to the people of the US and other countries both allied and opposed – underscore the importance of international agreement on what constitutes an act of war in cyberspace and the need for clear rules of engagement.

Advanced adversaries

In July the Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, where we serve, hosted a forum on protecting energy infrastructure. At that event, a Duke Energy Corporation executive reported that in 2017, the company experienced over 650 million attempts to intrude into their system. That number is startling, though hard to contextualise. More generally, however, some efforts directed against the US are extremely sophisticated.

Federal officials have said that starting in 2016, continuing in 2017 and likely still ongoing, Russian government attacks took advantage of trusting relationships between key vendors of services related to equipment and operations for utility companies. Compromising the vendors’ computers was the first step toward breaching the security of systems not directly connected to the internet.

It’s not just electric utilities – crucial though they are to almost every aspect of modern society. The Russian intrusion targeted computerised industrial control systems that are at the beating hearts of every part of critical public and private infrastructure, including water, energy, telecommunications and manufacturing. In the US, more than 85 percent of those critical potential targets are owned and operated by private companies. Once considered safely on home soil far from conflict, these firms are now at the centrw of the international cyberspace battleground.

Setting up defenses

The energy industry has invested heavily in protecting itself, and is leveraging a sector-wide collaboration called the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center to communicate between companies about warnings and threats to grid operations. But the task is too great – and the consequences to public health and safety too severe – for private companies to handle the burden on their own. As a result, the US Department of Homeland Security has been investigating breaches like the Russian intrusions, and briefing industry leaders about what it finds.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to government, corporate and academic experts on critical infrastructure. US Department of Homeland Security

For instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that DHS cybersecurity experts are “looking for evidence that the Russians are automating their attacks, which … could presage a large increase in hacking efforts.” That possibility, taken together with the energy-sector focus of the utility-hacking effort and the perpetrators’ interest in industrial control systems, could be a signal that Russia may be considering shifting from exploring US utility systems to actually attacking them.

An upcoming meeting may deepen federal-corporate collaboration: On July 31, the Department of Homeland Security is hosting a National Cybersecurity Summit to bring together government, industry and academic experts in protecting the country’s most important infrastructure. It will take all their efforts to keep up with the threats, particularly as the underlying techniques and technologies continue to evolve. The “internet of things,” for instance, connects physical devices in ways that merge the virtual world with the real one – making people only as safe as the weakest link in the network or supply chain.

The federal hint about identifying automated attacks offers a glimpse into the not-too-distant future. In 2017, Russian President Putin declared that “Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence] will become the ruler of the world.” In May 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Chinese Academies of Sciences and Engineering of his plan to make China “a world leader in science and technology,” which includes “integration of the internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy.”

Those statements, and the inexorable march of research and development, mean that machine learning – and ultimately quantum computing too – will play an increasing role in cyberespionage and cyberwarfare, as well as cybersecurity. The line between probing and attacking – and between defensive readiness and offensive preparation – may get even thinner.

Frank J. Cilluffo, Director, Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security, George Washington University and Sharon L. Cardash, Associate Director, Centre for Cyber and Homeland Security, George Washington University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Mkhize throws the book at the Special Investigating Unit

It’s a long shot at political redemption for the former health minister and, more pressingly, a bid to avert criminal charges

Pockets of instability in Kenya are underpinned by unequal development

Stability in Kenya hinges on a just, equitable distribution of resources, and a commitment to progress human development for the marginalised

Eastern Cape premier Mabuyane lives large amid province’s poverty

Oscar Mabuyane and MEC Babalo Madikizela allegedly used a portion of state funds for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s commemoration for their own benefit

Constitutional court confirms warrantless searches in cordoned off areas unconstitutional

The law was challenged in response to raids in inner Johannesburg seemingly targeting illegal immigrants and the highest court has pronounced itself 10 days before an election in which then mayor Herman Mashaba has campaigned on an anti-foreigner ticket
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×