While it’s not particularly common for hackers to attack physical infrastructure, the few that have occurred have been known to be quite catastrophic. For example, the Ukrainian power infrastructure was taken out by hackers just last year, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens without power for several hours. In fact, now western countries are believed to be threatened by similar attacks.

On December 23rd, 2015, workers at a Ukrainian power plant distribution center bore witness to hackers taking control of their computers. The criminals used the machines to shut down heat and power for over 230,000 citizens. Even though the power outage only lasted somewhere between one-to-six hours, several control centers remained in tatters following the attack. In addition to turning off the power, the hackers also took the opportunity to overwrite critical firmware, leaving 16 substations unresponsive to remote commands. As you can imagine, this made it exceptionally difficult to resolve. It should be noted that this was the first confirmed instance of hackers successfully bringing down a power grid, and it was the result of a careful, meticulous operation.

The malware in question, dubbed BlackOut, is known to be Russian in origin. Yet, security analysts don’t want to point fingers at anyone particular. Instead, it’s being assumed that the attack was carried out by several different parties, who were each responsible for different stages of the infiltration. These varying threats worked together to bring about the resulting blackout. If one thing’s for certain, it’s the fact that this attack wasn’t a simple opportunistic hack; rather, it was a carefully plotted strike that could have potentially caused much more damage than it actually did. The only question left is, what was the intent of the attack?

What this shows us is that, for instance, an attack on the United States’ infrastructure, though improbable, is certainly a possibility. Researchers found that the systems used by the United States are actually less secure than the systems put into place by the Ukraine. In order to close up any potential for such a devastating attack, the FBI has begun a campaign that’s designed to raise awareness of the issue. This campaign includes briefings and other exercises geared toward informing electrical power companies of what the risks are.

As you might expect, the reason that these attacks are so effective nowadays is because the power infrastructure of the United States is aging. Digital security wasn’t a necessity back when the infrastructure was first established, but with the changing times, it becomes a possibility that must be prepared for. Therefore, it’s only a matter of time before some, with or without purpose, finds their way into the power grid and causes damage. As things stand now, there has been at least a dozen reported breaches of the power grid, so the possibility is very real. 

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