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Hackers Have the Power to Switch Off American Grid Systems

September 6, 2017

And it's just a matter of time until they decide to use it. So says new research from Symantec, which finds that hackers have now infiltrated Western power infrastructure deeply enough to sabotage national power grids.

The firm claims to have seen at least 20 cases across America, Turkey, and Switzerland where criminals gained so-called operational access to energy facilities. In theory, that provides them with the ability to send commands to devices like circuit breakers to turn them off. For more details about the hack itself, this Symantec blog post is worth a read. But Eric Chien from the security firm neatly sums up the seriousness of the situation in an interview with Wired:

There’s a difference between being a step away from conducting sabotage and actually being in a position to conduct sabotage ... being able to flip the switch on power generation. We’re now talking about on-the-ground technical evidence this could happen in the US, and there’s nothing left standing in the way except the motivation of some actor out in the world.

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a number of hacks targeting companies that run U.S. energy facilities, including the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in Kansas. Symantec hasn't explicity linked the attacks it has observed, which are being referred to as Dragonfly 2.0, to that news. But speaking with Reuters, Chien did say that there may be a connection.

The newly observed attacks are the closest any hacker has yet come to sabotaging U.S. power grids. But as we’ve reported before, hacks in Ukraine have shown it’s certainly possible to cause widepsread power outages. Now it’s the West’s turn to worry.

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