Anonymous hackers getting ‘more disruptive’, could cause power outage

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February 21, 2012 5:15pm

United States security officials are sounded the warning against possible power outages brought about by cyberattacks from hacker – and hacktivist – groups like Anonymous.

US National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander gave this assessment to the White House and other private sessions, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Citing people familiar with the gatherings, the WSJ report said that, while Alexander has not publicly voiced such concerns, he has warned about an emerging ability by cyberattackers to disable or even damage computer networks.

So far, Anonymous – and groups allied with it – had concentrated mainly on exposing data or knocking sites offline, usually for a cause.

But the WSJ noted that Alexander’s warning may show a growing federal concern over the capabilities of Anonymous, which had previously launched high-profile cyberassaults against U.S. government and corporate targets including Visa, MasterCard and eBay Inc.‘s PayPal service.

“The group has never listed a power blackout as a goal, but some federal officials believe Anonymous is headed in a more disruptive direction. An attack on a network would be consistent with recent public claims and threats by the group. Last week, for instance, Anonymous announced a plan to shut down the Internet on March 31, which it calls Operation Global Blackout,” the WSJ said.

“It’s a real threat,” said James Lewis, a cybersecurity specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who is currently researching the group. “You want to occupy Wall Street? How about turn Wall Street off? Even for a day.”

Internet blackout prospects low

The WSJ said experts consider the likelihood of an Internet blackout low since the Internet should be able to absorb the attack the group outlined, said Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at computer-security company Mandiant.

On the other hand, an attack by Anonymous on the power grid may inflict limited damage but would likely sow alarm, especially if Anonymous took credit publicly.

Grid officials said they have devoted tremendous resources to repelling invaders, whether from Anonymous or some other source.

“The industry is engaged and stepping up widely to respond to emerging cyber threats. There is a recognition that there are groups out there like Anonymous, and we are concerned, as are other sectors,” said one electric-industry official. “.”

Another industry official noted the electric grid has backup systems that allow utilities to restore power quickly if it is taken out by a cyberattack or other event.

Threat limited for now

WSJ said intelligence officials believe the cyber threat to the power grid is relatively limited, at least for now.

It said the countries that could most quickly develop and use cyber means to destroy part of the grid — such as China and Russia — have little incentive to do it.

Those who might have more incentive, like Iran or North Korea, do not have the capability.

On the other hand, U.S. intelligence officials have found possible evidence of Chinese and Russian cyberspies spying on computer systems that run the electric grid.

While this may be in preparation for a conflict with the U.S., the Chinese and Russian governments have denied any involvement.

3 to 5 years to develop threat?

Other officials at the White House meeting headed by deputy national security adviser John Brennan said it would take a little more time for Anonymous to obtain such a capability – about three to five years.

But all agreed it would likely be a threat in the next few years.

The WSJ quoted the former official as saying possible scenarios discussed included one in which a foreign government developed the attack capability and outsourced it to a group like Anonymous, or if a U.S. adversary like al Qaeda hired hackers to mount a cyberattack.

That threat was described to lawmakers at a hearing last week.

“A near-peer competitor [country] could give cyber malware capability to some fringe group,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Some hacker, next thing you know, could be into our electrical grid. We have to get after this,” he added.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said she could not discuss details of internal deliberations, but she said the administration “has made cybersecurity a top priority, and we are working tirelessly to protect ourselves from the threats we face, whether they come from other nations, cyber criminals, or from stateless activist hacker groups.”

The NSA declined to comment, the WSJ said. — TJD, GMA News

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