May 23, 2013
Cybersecurity researcher HD Moore discovered he could use the Internet to access the controls of some 30 pipeline sensors around the country that were not password protected.
A hacking expert who helps companies uncover network vulnerabilities, Moore said he found the sensors last month while analyzing information in huge, publicly available databases of Internet-connected devices.
“We know that systems are exposed and vulnerable. We don’t know what the impact would be if somebody actually tried to exploit them,” said Moore, chief research officer at the security firm Rapid7.
U.S. national security experts used to take comfort in the belief that “rational” super powers like China or Russia were their main adversaries in cyber space. These countries may have the ability to destroy critical U.S. infrastructure with the click of a mouse, but they are unlikely to do so, in part because they fear Washington would retaliate.
Now, concerns are growing that “irrational” cyber actors - such as extremist groups, rogue nations or hacker activists - are infiltrating U.S. systems to hunt for security gaps like the one uncovered by Moore. These adversaries may not be as resourceful, but like Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of an Oklahoma federal building in 1995, it is the element of surprise that is as concerning.
Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he was worried the first destructive cyber attack on U.S. soil might resemble the Boston Marathon bombings in the sense that the suspects were not on the government’s radar.
“You are going to get relatively modest-scale, impact attacks from all kinds of folks - hactivists, criminals, whatever,” Chertoff said at the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit last week. “Are they going to take down critical infrastructure? They might.”
Emerging cyber actors that security experts say they are most concerned about include Iran, believed to be behind the ongoing assaults on U.S. banking websites, as well as a devastating attack on some 30,000 PCs at Saudi Arabia’s national oil company last year.
North Korea is also quickly gaining cyber skills, experts say, after hackers took down three South Korean broadcasters and two major banks in March.