Thursday, April 9, 2009

Chinese Hackers Infiltrate Power Grid

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Computer hackers have embedded software in the United States' electricity grid and other infrastructure that could potentially disrupt service or damage equipment, two former federal officials told CNN.

The ex-officials say code also has been found in computer systems of oil and gas distributors.

The code in the power grid was discovered in 2006 or 2007, according to one of the officials, who called it "the 21st century version of Cold War spying."

Department of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano would not confirm such a breach, but said Wednesday that there has been no known damage caused by one.

"There have been, to my knowledge, no disruptions of power on any grid caused by a deliberate cyberattack on our infrastructure -- on the grid," Napolitano said. "Nonetheless, we remain in constant protection, prevention, education, resiliency mode and we work with the utility sector particularly on that."

The U.S. power grid isn't the only system at risk. The former officials said malicious code has been found in the computer systems of oil and gas distributors, telecommunications companies and financial services industries.

Napolitano said the vulnerability of the nation's power grid to cyberattacks "has been something that the Department of Homeland Security and the energy sector have known about for years," and that the department has programs in place to fight such attacks.

Security experts say such computer hacking could be the work of a foreign government -- possibly Russia or China -- seeking to compromise U.S. security in the event of a future military conflict.

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Former CIA operative Robert Baer said he is not aware of a specific breach like the one the former officials describe. But he said people in the intelligence community assume that such attacks from countries like China go on all the time.

"Their foreign intelligence service has been probing our computers, our defense computers, our defense contractors, our power grids, our telephone system. ... I just came from a speech at the national defense university and they were hit by the Chinese trying to get into their systems," Baer said.

"They are testing and have gotten in portals. It's a serious threat."

Baer said if the software was embedded by a foreign government, he doubts it would be used to launch a surprise attack. Instead, he said, that government likely would keep the bugs in place in case of a future conflict with the United States.

"It's deterrence in the event of war," he said. "They will have another weapon at their disposal, which will be to turn off our power.


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