US probes cyber-attack on Illinois water system


By Jim Finkle ,Reuters

U.S. federal investigators are looking into a report that hackers managed to remotely shut down a utility’s water pump in central Illinois last week, in what could be the first known foreign cyber-attack on a U.S. industrial system. The Nov. 8 incident was described in a one-page report from the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, according to Joe Weiss, a prominent expert on protecting infrastructure from cyber-attacks. The attackers obtained access to the network of a water utility in a rural community west of the state capital Springfield with credentials stolen from a company that makes software used to control industrial systems, according to the account obtained by Weiss. It did not explain the motive of the attackers. He said that the same group may have attacked other industrial targets or be planning strikes using credentials stolen from the same software maker. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are examining the matter, said DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard. “At this time there is no credible corroborated data that indicates a risk to critical infrastructure entities or a threat to public safety,” he said, declining to elaborate further. An FBI spokesman in Illinois did not return phone calls seeking comment.

SCADA Security Cybersecurity experts said that the reported attack highlights the risk that attackers can break into what is known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. They are highly specialized computer systems that control critical infrastructure — from water treatment facilities, chemicals plants and nuclear reactors to gas pipelines, dams and switches on train lines. The issue of securing SCADA systems from cyber-attacks made international headlines last year after the mysterious Stuxnet virus attacked a centrifuge at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Many experts say that was a major setback for Iran’s nuclear weapon’s program and attribute the attack to the United States and Israel. In 2007, researchers at the U.S. government’s Idaho National Laboratories identified a vulnerability in the electric grid, demonstrating how much damage a cyber-attack could inflict on a large diesel generator.

Illinois Attack Several media reports identified the location of the attack as Springfield. City officials said that was inaccurate. Don Craven, a lawyer and a trustee for the Curran-Gardner Township Public Water District, said late on Friday that the small water utility was aware that “something happened” but that he did not have much information on the matter. “We are aware there may have been a successful or unsuccessful attempt to hack into the system,” Craven said by telephone from his Springfield, Illinois, office. “It came through a software system that’s used to remotely access the pumps,” he said. “A pump is burned out.” The district serves some 2,200 customers in a rural district West of Springfield. He said there was no interruption in service as the utility operates multiple pumps and wells. Its water comes from an aquifer underneath the Sangamon River. Craven said he did not know what software at the utility was involved but said he was confident that no customer records were compromised. He said he was mystified as to the reason hackers might have targeted the tiny district. The general manager of the utility has not returned messages. Quoting from the one-page report, Weiss said it was not yet clear whether other networks had been hacked as a result of the breach at the U.S. software maker.