On November 8, officials in Springfield, Illinois, discovered that cyber hackers had gained remote access to the city’s water utility.
As The Washington Post reports, the hackers first stole the password and access codes from a local company that develops Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. SCADA systems are operating systems that run many manufacturing plants around the globe. The hackers then used the stolen codes to manipulate the utility’s operational system. As a result, at least one water pump was damaged and burned out.
According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the incident, “It is unknown, at this time, the number of SCADA usernames and passwords acquired from the software company’s database and if any additional SCADA systems have been attacked as a result of this theft.” Early forensic analysis seems to have traced the attack to an Internet address in Russia. This attack is the first ever cyber attack on an American SCADA system that is known to have had practical, real-world effects.
The vulnerability of SCADA systems has been known for some time. In 2007, a DHS experiment known as the Aurora test confirmed that intrusions into SCADA systems were capable of having real-world effects—in that case, a diesel generator was burned out and destroyed. More recently, the Stuxnet virus in Iran is widely reported to have destroyed centrifuges used by the Iranian nuclear program to process uranium.
The prospects of further SCADA attacks should heighten everyone’s concern. SCADA systems run virtually every utility and manufacturing plant in America (indeed, around the globe). We can imagine any number of “worst case” scenarios, ranging from blackouts to floods, at the hands of cyber hackers.
It is high time that Americans stop being “cyber suckers” and begin the hard task of building a better cyber policy. This will require leadership from the top and a willingness to confront international bad actors (such as China and Russia) who harbor cyber criminals.