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Federal officials take note of disturbing surge in cyber attacks

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Tuesday, May 21, 2013

U.S. companies have been the target of foreign cyber attacks for years, but a recent flurry of breaches has government officials up in digital arms, The New York Times reports. 

The attacks that U.S. corporations reported in past years were relatively benign, with a primary focus on espionage. While this can lead to stolen data and business plans, the attacks weren't necessarily a threat to U.S. security. However, the recent attacks, which officials say most likely came from the Middle East, weren't conducted to surreptitiously steal data through a backdoor, but to sabotage systems completely. 

Energy companies have reported the most attacks and unfortunately, this presents one of the gravest threats to the country. Most of the cyber breaches have been probes that scour a company's processing systems, looking for a way to establish roots and take control. Considering energy companies make up one component of the country's critical infrastructure, the attacks are not being taken lightly. 

What's even more concerning is that all information on the mystery cyber attackers is still fuzzy. 

"We are concerned by these intrusions, and we are trying to make sure they don't lead to something much bigger, as they did in the Saudi case," said one senior American official, alluding to last summer's attack at global oil producer Saudi Aramco, which affected 30,000 computers. 

According to the news source, another government official added that "most everything we have seen is coming from the Middle East."

Taking a hostile turn
The latest cyber attacks appear to have one goal: destroy or alter industrial data, ultimately giving a hacker complete control over a utility's facilities. The best way to explain the new attacks is to compare them to the Stuxnet worm that officials believe was created by the U.S. and Israel to thwart Iran's nuclear plans, which it did successfully. 

An attack on the nation's critical infrastructure, such as its electricity distribution network, could be catastrophic. This has prompted the North American Electric Reliability Corporation to develop its NERC CIP standards that ensure utilities maintain strong cyber security, enforced by citing utilities with enormous fines if they aren't compliant. This led SUBNET to develop NERC CIP solutions that help utilities build strong cyber security measures into their substation automation and remote access upgrades.

With the barrage of cyber attacks not expected to let up anytime soon, cyber security will only become more important. 

The ICS-Cert, an industrial computer monitoring organization, said it was "highly concerned about hostility against critical infrastructure organizations," and that the more malicious nature of the attacks should prompt immediate upgrades to cyber security. 

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