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Iranian Hacking Of New York Dam Signals Wider Cyber Threat

Iranian Hacking Of New York Dam Signals Wider Cyber Threat

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by Elliot MarasDecember 22, 2015

A classified incident where Iranian hackers infiltrated a dam less than 20 miles from New York City two years ago underscores a major threat to the U.S. power grid, factories, pipelines, bridges and dams, according to a front-page story in today’s Wall Street Journal. The story notes the incident occurred amidst concerns that the Iranians had attacked U.S. banks.

The dam breach came a few years after U.S. spies damaged an Iranian nuclear facility using a computer worm.

Unlike a conventional war, a cyber attack can be hard to track. In the case of the New York dam, investigators first thought the intended target was a dam in Oregon.

Leon Panetta, then-U.S. Defense Secretary, warned in 2012 of Iran’s hacking capabilities.

Industrial  Computers Unprotected

One problem facing the U.S. industrial sector is that many of its computers were built before the consumer Internet. Hacking gurus warned against deploying these outdated computer systems. In many cases, these systems connect directly to office networks that are typically easy to hack.

Now, such systems are controlling drawbridges and water releases from dams, in addition to water flow in pipelines. As a result, the dams are vulnerable to traffic jams, floods and explosions caused by hackers.

Shodan, a search engine that catalogs Internet-connected machines, notes the U.S. has over 57,000 Internet-connected industrial control systems, which is more than any country. These systems range from big pipelines to office air conditioning units to electrical control systems.

The companies employing these systems have done little to protect them from hackers, according to security specialists.

Hacker Expert Warns Industry

Cesar Cerrudo, an Argentina-based researcher and chief technology officer at the consultancy IOActive Labs, said it’s great that everything is being integrated, but security is lacking. He showed a hacker conference in Las Vegas last year how easily he can manipulate traffic lights in big U.S. cities.

The operators of these systems are not paying attention to security, Cerrudo said.
The German government last year reported that hackers accessed a domestic steel plant’s control system and caused major damage to a blast furnace.

Governments also use cyber weapons. Israel and the U.S. used a computer program to disable centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility early in President Obama’s term. The virus self-replicated unintentionally and infected other networks, including Chevron Corp. Company executives said there was no damage.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been warning industries since 2011 to watch how they connect their systems to the Internet. In 2014, a report noted that the devices are poorly protected, thereby increasing chances of targeted and opportunistic hack attacks.

The DHS said it responded to reports of 295 industrial control system hacking incidents for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, marking an increase over the 245 incidents in 2014. In June, it said a critical asset owner suspected a breach and did not have records of devices on its network, undermining the investigation.

Hackers usually appear to probe systems to learn how they are set up and where they are vulnerable, investigators said.

A Wake Up  Call

The New York dam incident was a wake-up call that demonstrated Iran has greater cyber warfare capability than many believed and that it is capable of inflicting damage.

James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told a Congressional hearing in February that Iranian hackers are motivated and unpredictable cyber war actors.

Officials in Iran did not respond to a request for comment.

The dam hack also pointed to another challenge facing digital defenses in the U.S.: the cyberwar’s “fog.” The rules governing domestic surveillance and unclear Internet addresses prevented U.S. officials from determining where the hackers infiltrated.

An unclassified DHS summary indicates the hackers gained access through a cellular modem. People familiar with the incident said the summary refers to a small structure used for flood control near Rye, N.Y. called Bowman Avenue Dam. The hackers probed the system but did not take control of it.

A DHS spokesperson said the department responds to threats, vulnerabilities and cyber incidents at critical infrastructure across the country but does not comment on specific incidents.

Also read: Ted Koppel writes book about dangerous power grid hackers

Intelligence Suspected The Wrong Dam

American intelligence agencies noticed the attack when they monitored computers they believed to be linked to Iranian hackers targeting U.S. firms, sources told The Wall Street Journal. U.S. officials linked these hackers to consumer banking website hackers, including SunTrust Banks Inc., Capital One Financial Corp. and PNC Financial Services Group.

Analysts noticed a machine crawling the Internet seeking out vulnerable U.S. industrial control systems. The hackers were apparently focusing on specific Internet addresses, sources said. National Security Agency analysts advised counterparts at Homeland Security about these addresses.

Investigators were able to link an address to a “Bowman” dam. There are 31 U.S. dams that include that word in their name, however.

Officials feared the hackers accessed systems at Oregon’s Arthur R. Bowman Dam, which irrigates agriculture and prevents flooding in Prineville, Ore. Officials notified the White House that the digital conflict with Iran was escalating.

Asked to comment, the White House referred the Wall Street Journal to Homeland Security.

The trail eventually led to the Rye Brook, N.Y. dam. The manager of Rye, N.Y. said FBI agents came to the city offices to talk to the IT manager about a hacking incident but said there was very little discussion.

The FBI declined to comment.

Image from Shutterstock.

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