WASHINGTON â The Obama administration has warned the nationâs power companies, water suppliers and transportation networks that sophisticated cyberattack techniques used to bring down part of Ukraineâs power grid two months ago could easily be turned on them.
After an extensive inquiry, American investigators concluded that the attack in Ukraine on Dec. 23 may well have been the first power blackout triggered by a cyberattack â a circumstance many have long predicted. Working remotely, the attackers conducted âextensive reconnaissanceâ of the power systemâs networks, stole the credentials of system operators and learned how to switch off the breakers, plunging more than 225,000 Ukrainians into darkness.
In interviews, American officials said they have not completed their inquiry into who was responsible for the attack. But Ukrainian officials have blamed the Russians, saying it was part of the effort to intimidate the countryâs political leaders by showing they could switch off the lights at any time.
âThey could be right,â said one senior administration official. âBut so far we donât have the complete evidence, and the attackers went to some lengths to hide their tracks.â
Even after it has reached a conclusion, the White House might decide not to name the attackers, just as it decided not to publicly blame China for the theft of 22 million security files from the Office of Personnel Management.
But American intelligence officials have been intensely focused on the likelihood that the attack was engineered by the Russian military, or âpatriotic hackersâ operating on their behalf, since the first reports of the December blackout. The officials have found it intriguing that the attack did not appear designed to shut down the entire country. âThis appears to be message-sending,â said one senior administration official with access to the intelligence, who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing inquiry.
Equally interesting to investigators was the technique used: The malware designed for the Ukrainian power grid was directed at âindustrial control systems,â systems that act as the intermediary between computers and the switches that distribute electricity and guide trains as they speed down the track, the valves that control water supplies, and the machinery that mixes chemicals at factories.
The most famous such attack was the Stuxnet worm, which destroyed the centrifuges that enriched uranium at the Natanz nuclear site in Iran. But that is not an example often cited by American officials â largely because the attack was conducted by the United States and Israel, a fact American officials have never publicly acknowledged.
Experts in cybersecurity regard the Ukraine attack as a teaching moment, a chance to drive home to American firms the vulnerability of their own systems. âThereâs never been an intentional cyberattack that has taken the electric grid down before,â said Robert M. Lee of the SANS Institute. Mr. Lee said that while it was still not possible to determine who conducted the attack â what is called âattributionâ in the cyber industry â he noted that it was clearly designed to send a political message.
âIt was large enough to get everyoneâs attention,â he said, âand small enough not to prompt a major response.â
The warning issued last Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security provided the first detailed account of the Ukrainian attack, based on the findings of a series of government experts who traveled to Ukraine to gather evidence.
The attack described by the Homeland Security document was highly sophisticated. The attackers gained entry, it appears, by sending a series of âspearphishingâ messages that led someone in Ukraine to unintentionally give them access. Once they had that, the attackers mapped the system, much as the North Koreans mapped Sony Entertainmentâs computers before attacking them in the fall of 2014.
Then a series of cyberattacks were carefully coordinated to occur within 30 minutes of one another on Dec. 23. The âbreakersâ that disconnected power were operated âby multiple external humansâ through secure communication channels. The hackers then wiped many of the systems clean using a form of malware aptly named âKillDiskâ which erased files on the systems and disabled them. They wiped out the âhuman-machine interfaceâ that enables operators of the electric system to run those systems â or get them back in service â from their computers.
For extra measure, the hackers even managed to disconnect backup power supplies, so that once the power failed, the computers could not turn them back on.
Investigators say that in the end, the Ukrainians may have been saved by the fact that their country relies on old technology and is still not as fully wired as many Western nations â meaning they were able to restore power by manually flipping old-style circuit breakers.
âThe bad news for the United States is that we canât do the same thing,â said Ted Koppel, the former ABC News anchor who published a best seller last year, entitled âLights Out,â about the vulnerability of the American electric grid.
âWe have 3,200 power companies, and we need a precise balance between the amount of electricity that is generated and the amount that is used,â he said. âAnd that can only be done over a system run on the Internet. The Ukrainians were lucky to have antiquated systems.â
The report from Homeland Security recommended a series of common-sense steps: Make sure that outsiders accessing power systems or other networks that operate vital infrastructure can monitor the system, but not change it; close âback doorsâ â system flaws that can give an intruder unauthorized access; have a contingency plan to shut down systems that have been infected, or invaded, by outsiders.
But all those systems make it harder for legitimate operators to use the Internet to keep vast systems operating, from a smartphone or laptop if necessary.