States re-examine cybersecurity after Russia accused of hack
BURLINGTON, Vermont — Several states around the country on Saturday asked cybersecurity experts to re-examine state and utility networks after a Vermont utility’s laptop was found to contain malware that US officials say is linked to Russian hackers.
The Burlington Electric Department, one of Vermont’s two largest electric utilities, confirmed Friday it had found on one of its laptops the malware code used in Grizzly Steppe, the name the US government has given to malicious cyber activity by Russian civilian and military intelligence services.
A Burlington Electric Department spokesman said federal officials have told company officials the threat was not unique to them.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security would not say whether any other utilities, organizations or entities had reported similar malware on their systems following the report. The official said any such information would be confidential.
Officials in New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut said they are more closely monitoring state and utility networks for anything suspicious.
“We specifically have been looking for signatures that match those reported last week by DHS and the FBI related to Russian actors,” Connecticut governor’s office spokesman Chris Collibee said. “We have not detected any activity matching the reported malware at this time.”
In New York, a spokesman said Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed all state agencies to re-examine their computer systems for any security breaches. Nothing had been found.
An attack on a US power grid has long been a nightmare scenario for top US officials. The National Security Agency and US Cyber Command chief Adm. Michael Rogers have previously warned it’s not a matter of if but when attackers will also target US power systems.
On Dec. 23, 2015, a highly sophisticated cyberattack on the power grid in Ukraine hit three regional electronic power distribution companies within 30 minutes of each other, blacking out more than 225,000 customers.
Democratic Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said his administration has been in touch with the federal government and the state’s utilities. He said people should be “alarmed and outraged” that Russia “has been attempting to hack our electric grid, which we rely upon to support our quality-of-life, economy, health and safety.”
Burlington Electric noted it wasn’t connected to the grid system and didn’t explain how the malware got onto the computer.
The company said US government authorities alerted American utilities about the malware code Thursday in a report released when Democratic President Barack Obama announced the US response to election hacking. Obama ordered sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the US said were really spies.
A Russian state television channel on Saturday sought to discredit reports linking the malware to the Kremlin.
If Russia is found to be connected to widespread hacking of US utilities, it will make it more difficult for Republican President-elect Donald Trump to soften anti-Russian sentiment on Capitol Hill, where hearings on hacking are scheduled next week.
Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, said the incident proves Obama’s response was warranted.
“This attack shows how rampant Russian hacking is. It’s systemic, relentless, predatory,” Welch said in a statement. “They will hack everywhere, even Vermont, in pursuit of opportunities to disrupt our country.”
The Washington Post first reported on the Vermont utility’s discovery of the malware.
The Rossiya state television channel said the Post provided no confirmation Russia was involved. It said the Post report spoke only about the identification of malicious software code that Washington previously concluded had been used by the Russian intelligence services in the cyberattack on US political institutions.
In a report released Thursday, Homeland Security and the FBI provided technical details about the tools and infrastructure they say Russian civilian and military intelligence services have used to compromise and exploit networks “associated with the U.S. election as well as a range of US government, political and private sector entities.”
“This activity by the Russian civilian and military intelligence services is part of an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the US government and its citizens,” the report said.
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