U.S. blames RUSSIA for cyber attacks on power grid; tensions mount

(National SentinelCybersecurity: For the first time, the United States has publicly blamed Russia for attacks on the nation’s power grid stretching back some two years.

The public accusation comes amid increasing pressure on the Trump administration within the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon to address Russia’s cyber- and informational warfare ahead of the 2018 elections.

As reported by Reuters, beginning in 2016 and perhaps sooner, hackers working on behalf of the Kremlin attempted to breach several U.S. critical infrastructure sectors including commercial facilities, energy, nuclear power, aviation, water treatment, and manufacturing, according to a U.S. security alert published on Thursday.

Reuters noted further:

The Department of Homeland Security and FBI said in the alert that a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors” had targeted the networks of small commercial facilities “where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.” The alert did not name facilities or companies targeted.

The direct condemnation of Moscow represented an escalation in the Trump administration’s attempts to deter Russia’s aggression in cyberspace, after senior U.S. intelligence officials said in recent weeks the Kremlin believes it can launch hacking operations against the West with impunity.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, retiring National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers said that thus far, the Russians “haven’t paid a price, at least, that has significantly changed their behavior” regarding cyber operations directed against the United States.

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Democrats, however, seemed focused primarily on Russian election interference. Rogers countered that it wasn’t as if the administration had done nothing, though he did say he believed more could and should be done to counter Russian cyber activities.

That said, experts note that publicly blaming Russia for its past cyber activities and hacking attempts is a major first step in countering Russian cyber activities and signals a significant shift in U.S. policy towards state-sponsored hacking.

The decision to call out Moscow and attribute hacking attempts of American critical infrastructure to Russia was “unprecedented and extraordinary,” said Amit Yoran, a former U.S. official who founded DHS’s Computer Emergency Response Team, Reuters reported.

“I have never seen anything like this,” Yoran, now chief executive of the cyber firm Tenable, told the newswire service.

Thursday’s notice coincides with a decision by the Treasury Department to place sanctions on 19 Russians and five Russian organizations including Moscow’s intelligence services for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and for additional malicious cyber attacks, Reuters reported.

“Russia in the past has denied it has tried to hack into other countries’ infrastructure and vowed on Thursday to retaliate for the new sanctions,” the newswire reported.

Cybersecurity experts have long warned that American critical infrastructure was vulnerable to cyber attack. And while government and the private sector have been rushing to bolster cyber defenses, deficiencies remain.

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