Hackers target power plants, other infrastructure

By Jordan Robertson
Associated Press / January 29, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO - More than half the operators of power plants and other critical infrastructure say in a new study that their computer networks have been infiltrated by sophisticated adversaries.

In many cases, foreign governments are suspected.

The findings were announced in a survey released yesterday that offers a rare public look at the damage computer criminals can do to vital institutions such as power grids, water and sewage systems, and oil and gas companies. Manipulating the computer systems can cause power outages, floods, sewage spills, and oil leaks.

The report was based on a survey completed by 600 executives and technology managers from infrastructure operators in 14 countries.

The report was prepared by McAfee Inc., which makes security software, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which analyzed the data and conducted additional interviews. The respondents aren’t named, and specifics aren’t given about what happened in the attacks.

The report was released as concerns grow about state-sponsored hacking and threats to critical infrastructure.

In November, CBS’s “60 Minutes’’ said several Brazilian power outages were caused by hackers, a report Brazilian officials have played down. In April, US government officials said spies hacked into the US electric grid and left behind computer programs that could disrupt service. The intrusions were discovered after electric companies gave the government permission to audit their systems.

In the new report, 54 percent of respondents acknowledged that they had been hit by “stealthy infiltration’’ of their networks.

In such break-ins, criminals can plant malicious software to steal files, spy on e-mails, and even remotely control equipment inside a utility.