Nuclear Plant Security Compromised by Financially Motivated Insiders

Equipment at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine was used to mine cryptocurrency.

A company's inside staff can be its biggest threat, as so many examples show.

This occurs in places other than the US. It's been reported by Ukrainian news site UNIAN that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested the power plant operators of the Yuzhnoukrainsk nuclear power plant facility for mining cryptocurrency through use of the facility's equipment.

The charges assert the crypto miners compromised the nuclear facility's security via their mining setup's Internet connection. The operators are said to have ended up leaking classified information about the plant's physical protection system.

Detectives from the SBU obtained a search warrant and performed their investigation on July 10. The detectives were reported to have found unauthorized computer equipment and seized a media converter, fiber-optic cable and a partial network cable.

Similar exploits have been performed previously. Some engineers at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center were arrested in February 2018 for attempting to mine Bitcoin (BTC) using one of the country's largest supercomputers, for example.

This computer that was going to be mining reportedly had the ability to perform 1,000 trillion calculations per second, and was purposefully kept disconnected from the Internet for security. Mining attempts require Internet connectivity to report the results of the calculations.

Phil Neray, VP of Industrial Cybersecurity at CyberX, had these comments on the incident: "Anyone seen the 'Chernobyl' mini-series?" he said. "In the latest news out of Ukraine, nuclear plant engineers installed unauthorized devices plus an Internet connection in their internal network, which likely went undetected for months or longer, exposing critical infrastructure to potentially catastrophic safety issues. This is a great example of 'trust but verify' -- even with the strictest policies and regulations in the world, it's all theoretical if you aren't continuously monitoring for unusual or unauthorized activity."

Unauthorized activity by employees who have access to an organization's facilities has been a long standing problem. Turning a nuclear plant into a Bitcoin miner is just one way insiders can subvert a situation into one that benefits them.

— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.