This is a post I’ve been intending to write ever since I wrote this post a few weeks ago, about the Wall Street Journal’s most recent article on the Russian cyber attacks on the US power grid. I thought I would take my time (and I don’t have a lot of free time lately, due to my day job) to write it, since there were still questions in my mind about the position I wanted to take. I wanted to make sure I provided enough supporting evidence for my position.
However, there was a development today that provided all the supporting evidence I could possibly need. Specifically, this was a report in the New York Times about the testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (and don’t tell me that name is an oxymoron!) by Gina Haspel, the CIA director, Christopher Wray, FBI director, and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. They were discussing the 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment”, which was released today. Of course, the testimony covered a lot of different topics, but what struck me were these two paragraphs from the Times article:
The assessment also argues that while Russia’s ability to conduct cyberespionage and influence campaigns is similar to the one it ran in the 2016 American presidential election, the bigger concern is that “Moscow is now staging cyberattack assets to allow it to disrupt or damage U.S. civilian and military infrastructure during a crisis.”
It specifically noted the Russian planting of malware in the United States electricity grid. Russia already has the ability to bring the grid down “for at least a few hours,” the assessment concluded, but is “mapping our critical infrastructure with the long-term goal of being able to cause substantial damage.”
So why is this so important? You’ve heard it before, right? Specifically, you may have noted, in the above-linked post on the recent WSJ article, that I quoted this paragraph from that article:
In briefings to utilities last summer, Jonathan Homer, industrial-control systems cybersecurity chief for Homeland Security, said the Russians had penetrated the control-system area of utilities through poorly protected jump boxes. The attackers had “legitimate access, the same as a technician,” he said in one briefing, and were positioned to take actions that could have temporarily knocked out power.
The quote from Jonathan Homer first appeared in the July WSJ article by Rebecca Smith, one of the two reporters who wrote the recent article. Of course, the July article set off a firestorm of amplifications by many other news outlets, and a chain of events that I wrote about in ten posts last summer, starting with this one.
Here is as brief a summary of previous events as I can make, while still providing the important facts:
- DHS (specifically the NCCIC, which incorporates what was the ICS-CERT. And if you think this is TMA – too many acronyms – I couldn’t agree with you more!) announced a series of four briefings to update on the Russian cyber attacks against the US electric power industry, which they had first announced last March. Even though the March report said only generation was the target, and the Russian’s hadn’t penetrated any control systems at the plants[i], the first briefing on July 23 painted a very different picture, which was vividly described in the first WSJ article. It seemed very clear from what was said (as quoted in the article – I didn’t attend that first briefing), that the Russians had penetrated control centers (definitely plural) of US utilities, where they had most likely planted malware; and that malware might well be used at some point to cause a major grid disturbance.
- I was skeptical that actual control centers of power transmission or distribution utilities had been penetrated, and I said in my post the day after the WSJ article appeared (linked two paragraphs above) that what the presenters must have meant was that control rooms of generating plants were penetrated. This can’t produce a major grid outage, but having a bunch of plants go down at one time would certainly be annoying; given the alarmist tone of the first briefing, I assumed there must have been a number of substantial plants penetrated (at the control system level, of course) – I guessed up to 25. But my biggest reason for skepticism about the WSJ article was that, if it were really true that a bunch of utility control centers were penetrated, there would have been alarm bells ringing at the highest level of government, and utilities would pretty much have been told to drop everything and look for malware on their control systems, as well as take further steps to beef up their already-strong defenses. Given that that those bells never rang, I found it very hard to believe the statements quoted in the article. I assumed the statements in that first briefing were the product of a few DHS people getting overly excited, and thinking that exaggerating the seriousness of the situation would make utilities pay a lot more attention to cyber security (and it would be hard to see how they could pay much more attention than they already are!).
- However, the day after that post – July 26 – it was reported that a DHS spokesperson announced that, not only were no utility control centers penetrated, but the only control systems penetrated were those in a small generating plant that couldn’t have any significant grid impact. This I found very surprising, to say the least. Yea, greatly was I wroth, and I rent my garments in frustration. But I continued to attribute the tone of the July 23 briefing to over-zealousness on the part of the NCCIC staff members who led it.
- I continued in that belief even though a friend pointed out to me the next day that the slides from the July 23 briefing directly contradicted the later statement that only one small plant was penetrated. And I continued to continue in that belief when Rebecca Smith wrote a new article that seemed to still follow the narrative from the first briefing, and didn’t mention the DHS walkback at all. I expressed amazement that she wouldn’t have changed the tone of her articles, and attributed this to her being either naïve or having lived in an inaccessible cave for the past few days (I now greatly regret the tone of my remarks about Rebecca, and want to apologize to her. It seems I may have been the one living in a cave, not her. Continue reading, to see what I mean).
- Not being satisfied with just putting out three different stories of what the Russians had achieved, DHS put out another story – which contradicted the other three – at a July 31 briefing for top utility executives in New York, which the Secretaries of DHS and DoE both participated in. This time, the story was that only two wind turbines had been penetrated. I later castigated DHS for being so confused in their stories, and in particular for not stepping forward to point out what seemed to be the errors in the WSJ story, and the flurry of news reports based on it. But I continued to believe there was no way the original DHS briefing could be true.
- And I’m proud to report that I witnessed firsthand the promulgation of yet another DHS story, trying to walk back the original briefing story. This one came at the Software and Supply Chain Assurance Forum in McLean, VA in late September. There, a fairly low-level NCCIC employee – although the head of NCCIC had already addressed the same meeting, and may have been still in the room – stated that the confusion was that, in the first briefing, the speakers didn’t understand the difference between vendors and utilities. Therefore, when they were saying that utilities were penetrated, they really meant vendors. Since there’s no dispute that vendors were penetrated (and the latest WSJ article describes how in vivid detail), the speaker implied (although he didn’t state it) that this is why the original briefing was so different from the true story – which would presumably be one of the three DHS walkbacks already described. I found this statement amazing, especially because the speaker was able to keep a straight face when he said it. I couldn’t have done that.
- What was even weirder was that, despite DHS' frenzied efforts to walk back the dire narrative in the first briefing, in the second briefing - two days after the first one - I heard what seemed to be pretty much the same story as in the first briefing (which I didn't attend). And the following week, when the third and fourth briefings were given (DHS had known up front they would be very well attended, so they scheduled four, all covering the same material), they didn't differ from the first one either. Yet this was all after a different DHS spokesperson had directly contradicted what was said in the first briefing.
So now we’re back at the recent WSJ article, from which I also quoted this paragraph:
Vikram Thakur, technical director of security response for Symantec Corp., a California-based cybersecurity firm, says his company knows firsthand that at least 60 utilities were targeted, including some outside the U.S., and about two dozen were breached. He says hackers penetrated far enough to reach the industrial-control systems at eight or more utilities. He declined to name them.
This completely turns things around, in my opinion. After all, “eight or more utilities” isn’t two wind farms or one small CT plant, period. So either Mr. Thakur isn’t telling the truth (and he worked with DHS in investigating the Russian attacks), or both he and the speakers at the original DHS briefing (especially Jonathan Homer) are the ones telling the truth. If so, this means that the four later attempts by DHS to walk back this story are themselves based on “alternative facts”.
However, as I mentioned above, I was still hesitant to write something about this until I was sure I had all the facts straight about who said what when - that is, until I read the NY Times article a couple of hours ago. Now it seems the national intelligence community is firmly on the side of Mr. Thakur and Jonathan Homer. Even then, I find it very hard to conclude that they’re right, simply because there hasn’t been any huge hue and cry over this penetration of our grid. I think that would truly constitute a national emergency (in contrast to the “national emergency” currently being discussed). You remember all the frenzy that (rightly) surrounded the announcement of the first Ukraine attack in 2015? This would be literally ten times as great, and it should be.
So I think there need to be two investigations. The subject of the first, and by far the more urgent one, is whether it’s really true that malware has been implanted in utility control centers by the Russians. Of course, if that’s the case, there needs to be a major effort to remove it, and to hold Russia accountable (in fact, the relatively weak response so far to the undisputed fact that they have been trying so hard to penetrate the US grid – whether or not they’ve succeeded – is something I also don’t understand. Or maybe I do understand it, which is even scarier). And there’s probably a lot more that needs to be done, including perhaps with the CIP standards.
The second investigation isn’t as urgent, but in my mind it’s even more serious: How did it happen that DHS was quickly falling all over itself to walk back what was said in the first briefing last July, if in fact that briefing was largely correct – and the Russians had penetrated utility control centers? That is something for the Department of Justice, since it’s definitely a criminal investigation - one involving national security. But it's only needed if in fact the first investigation finds that there was indeed penetration of utility control networks.
Any opinions expressed in this blog post are strictly mine and are not necessarily shared by any of the clients of Tom Alrich LLC.
If you would like to comment on what you have read here, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep in mind that if you’re a NERC entity, Tom Alrich LLC can help you with NERC CIP issues or challenges like what is discussed in this post – especially on compliance with CIP-013; we also work with security product or service vendors that need help articulating their message to the power industry. To discuss this, you can email me at the same address.
[i] Although I just noticed a quote where it seems someone from DHS did imply in March that utility control centers were penetrated and malware had probably been implanted. I must have missed that part, as I assume the rest of the industry did as well - since I don't remember any big hue and cry then, either.