Technological advancement tastes kind of like crow. Two weeks ago, I wrote that even though it was now possible to physically hack infrastructure, this is the kind of skill that only a nation-state would possess, and that states would probably use this ability sparingly.
I am certain that somewhere, in a basement lair under a massive doom-castle, Vladimir Putin read my article, then turned around in a massive swivel-chair while steepling his fingers and cackling. That this the only explanation as to why, shortly after my article was written, US officials confirmed that hackers, suspected to be Russian agents, had gone and crashed Ukraine’s power grid.
Previously, only two hacking incidents have ever managed to damage physical infrastructure–the Stuxnet malware that attacked the Iranian nuclear program, and an incident in which unidentified hackers damaged a German steel mill. This third incident is a milestone in and of itself, as it’s the first incident in which an infrastructural cyberattack has affected large portions of a civilian population.
So, should you be worried now? Yes and no.
First of all, you should be worried, because the program that was used to crash the Ukrainian power grid has hidden in plain sight for many years. The hackers appear to have used a strain of malware known as “BlackEnergy.” BlackEnergy has been seen in the wild since at least 2011, but prior to the attacks against Ukraine, this program was known only as a cyberespionage tool. Researchers were convinced that this program’s only purpose was to sit on ICS nodes and transmit valuable data back to the Motherland–sinister, but not directly harmful.
By pivoting BlackEnergy from a passive surveillance tool into a cyberweapon, the team behind it has shown a worrying amount of sophistication. There’s a distressingly large amount of malware out there that’s similarly designed to sit quietly on your hard drive and report back. It now appears that any of these programs might be weaponized at any moment.
I’m going to tempt fate, however, by continuing to tell everyone not to worry too hard. Here’s my reasoning: Russia has not been doing too well in her military adventures. The civil war in Ukraine has turned into an expensive boondoggle, and the air war in Syria is shaping up the same way. The Russian propaganda machine needs easy victories that it can use to whip up the population, and a successful cyberattack is a victory that that requires no expense in terms of men, vehicles, or bullets.
Given that the Ukrainian population was inconvenienced for a maximum of six hours, I’m going to say that as long as your cybergeddon preparedness kit contains sophisticated tools like “matches” and “a flashlight,” you’ll probably still be okay.
[Post image via Shutterstock]