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4/8/2009
07:54 PM
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WSJ's Meatless 'Spies' Story

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal article reporting that the U.S. power grid had been infiltrated by Chinese and Russian "cyberspies" likely caused a few people to choke on their Cheerios. But it left the security community -- already jaded with stories of SCADA and power-grid vulnerabilities, and with assumptions that the grid had been hacked a long time ago -- hungry for more.

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal article reporting that the U.S. power grid had been infiltrated by Chinese and Russian "cyberspies" likely caused a few people to choke on their Cheerios. But it left the security community -- already jaded with stories of SCADA and power-grid vulnerabilities, and with assumptions that the grid had been hacked a long time ago -- hungry for more.Marcus Sachs, director of SANS Internet Storm Center, says his first thought was, "Where is the beef?" Sachs, a SCADA security expert, told me he didn't think the revelations by the article's unnamed senior intelligence official sources were anything new -- at least to the security industry. But the report could help raise awareness among businesses running critical infrastructures, such as small power companies, to remember that "cyberspace is a dangerous place."

"For the rest of us, we already know that's what's been going on," Sachs says.

Still, we security folk want more. We want the down-and-dirty malware particulars. What exactly were those "software tools" described by senior officials in the WSJ article? Spyware? Bots? Malicious code that takes over the admin rights of the power grid systems and triggers blackouts?

It wasn't clear given how the article's sources described the hacks, with the intruders "believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls," but had not been out to damage it, although those sources said the hackers could try to do so "during a crisis or war." They reportedly left behind the so-called software tools, which they could ultimately use to destroy elements of the power grid infrastructure, the article said.

Power grid insecurity is a well-documented topic in the security world, most recently with IOActive's discovery of several vulnerabilities in the next-generation Smart Grid network of intelligent power switches that could let an attacker break in and cut off power. And on Tuesday, Dark Reading blogger and security expert Gadi Evron blog on Tuesday shed light on how poorly SCADA vendors handle vulnerabilities.

Senior officials' acknowledgment of the intrusions may not have given us enough meat to chew on, but it did raise the topic at breakfast tables around the country, where everyone expects their refrigerator to always be running when they grab the milk and the light to come on when they flip the switch. For the rest of us in security? Hey, at least we now have another topic besides Conficker to chat about at the office coffee maker.

-- Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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