A modern Cold War with Russia will be CYBERWAR targeting America's energy grid and critical infrastructure. We must prepare for the nightmare scenario, warns cybersecurity expert

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February 24, 2022

As Russia invades Ukraine and America responds with sanctions, the world faces the possibility of a new Cold War...

 

Via DailyMail.com:

 

Morgan Wright is the Chief Security Advisor for SentinelOne, Senior Fellow at The Center for Digital Government, and a former Senior Adviser for the US State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program. 

Imagine - it's winter. Heating oil prices are rising. Low temperatures are forecast for the next few days.

You turn on your television and hear the first reports of a massive cyberattack against America's largest pipeline.

Ransomware has infected the company's computer system, bringing operations to a halt as IT staff work feverishly to stop the spread.

The situation quickly escalates over the next 48 hours, causing the president to declare a state of emergency.

Gas stations up and down the east coast run out of fuel within hours. Airlines delay and cancel flights.

The first signs of panic set in. Drivers hoard all the available remaining fuel and fight over their places in the gas line. The company can't give a definite date when operations will resume.

Prices spike all over the United States as fears of a broader cyberattack linger, despite assurances from the Department of Homeland Security.

Now realize - this isn't Hollywood or a tabletop exercise. 

In April of 2021, this same series of events unfolded after a Russian-based ransomware gang infiltrated Colonial Pipeline.

One week later a ransom note popped up on a control room computer screen and the pipeline operations were completely shut down for the first time in 57 years.

Five days later operations resumed. But the damage would take several months and millions of dollars to fix.

As Russia invades Ukraine and America responds with sanctions the world faces the possibility of a new Cold War. 

Predictably, the Kremlin has vowed to retaliate against the countermeasures deployed against them by the West.

We must consider what a modern version of a cold war would look like. It will look far different than the last.

There won't be any massive attack or one haymaker punch that takes down everything. Instead, it will be incremental, targeted, and continuous.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the 9-11 Commission was established to 'prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks… [and] provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.'

The largest terrorist attack on United States soil was carried out with fewer personnel that it takes to field a football team.

In guarding against a future cold war, it would be foolish to dismiss any scenario as 'unimaginable.' The world is entering uncharted territory.

The Colonial pipeline attack was the first visible attack on critical infrastructure. It was no longer invisible bits and bytes, but dollars and cents and long gas lines. 

The next attack on a pipeline could be accompanied by a similar attack on the energy grid.

We saw how tough it was to defend one attack on one front. What if there were multiple sustained attacks on two or more fronts?

America's energy grid is probably the most vulnerable. And Russia has the patience to conduct long-term cyber reconnaissance.

They will use a variety of techniques, including exploiting the fragmented 'unpatched' computer systems operating the grid.

Compromising these system vulnerabilities with phishing and spear phishing emails remain the tried-and-true tactics.

An initial foothold is gained. Over time, Russian intelligence officers continue to move throughout the system, mapping out vulnerabilities, covering their tracks, and collecting sensitive information on operations.

What brand are the breakers? Who manufactured the backup power systems? What version is the software running the industrial control systems? What do they use for email?

Not every system can be attacked or needs to be. The energy grid is extremely balkanized. Many interfaces between neighboring systems are not as reliable as they should be.

At a time of Russia's choosing, an attack would be unleashed. 

The goal is to create a cascading series of failures that tie up vital resources, cause mass panic and confusion, create distrust of government messages and muddy the waters for attribution.

A major attack on the U.S. electric grid is estimated to quickly cost the economy between $243 billion and $1 trillion dollars.

In February 2021, the Texas energy grid suffered massive failures related to cold weather that resulted in the loss of power for 4.5 million homes, $195 billion in property damage, and the deaths of at least 57 people.

In comparison Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Sandy and Irma combined cost $497 billion.

Russia has already shown they can take out large swaths of an electrical grid.

 

America's energy grid is probably the most vulnerable. And Russia has the patience to conduct long-term cyber reconnaissance. Millions of Texans lost their power when winter storm Uri hit the state and knocked out coal, natural gas and nuclear plants.

 

On December 23, 2015, the malware BlackEnergy was used against Ukraine and took out power to over 750,000 homes, shut down three power plant and two back-up plants and caused chaos and mass confusion for days.

Russia's fingerprints won't be directly tied to the attack. It will be blamed on unknown criminal actors that Russia will condemn while they proclaim that they too have been victimized by cyber attacks originating from the United States.

Control of the narrative is a Russian staple in cyber attacks.

Another vulnerable area ripe for targeting is our dependence on satellites. From GPS to communications to farming, the constellation of orbiting technology has long been an Achilles-heel for our military as well.

In November of 2021, Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of their own decommissioned satellites. The result was a field debris that endangered the International Space Station.

GPS satellites provide information for farmers to map out their fields and harvest more efficiently. Emergency services like police, fire, and EMS, rely on GPS directions for a variety of public safety functions. Even the ability to hop in your car and fire up your favorite driving app would be rendered moot.

The biggest consumer of GPS data is the United States military. From unmanned aerial vehicles to smart bombs, to jet fighters and refueling tankers, to soldiers and Marines on the ground, access to accurate GPS data is a mission critical requirement.

Russian and China are actively developing and deploying technology to '…jam GPS and communications satellites.' From destroying satellites to interfering with them, our reliance on GPS is concerning.

Equally concerning is the prospect of a targeted electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. This type of attack would severely blind the eyes and ears of our intelligence collection capabilities.

A nuclear explosion at a high altitude would generate a mammoth electromagnetic pulse over 1000 miles that could fry every electronic component. What would happen to our power grid, for example?

According to a study by Oak Ridge National Labs, the collapse of our power system could impact 130 million Americans, require 4 to 10 years to fully recover and impose economic costs of $1 to $2 trillion.

The targets won't just be the continental United States, Alaska, or Hawaii.

It will include places where the United States has a military or intelligence presence. For example, Pine Gap in Australia. The loss of intelligence collection and analysis capabilities there would impact military operations against terrorism, prevent the used of drones, and lose our ability for early-warning detection of missile launches from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea for example.

The number of adversaries capable of conducting and EMP attack is growing, not diminishing. EMP attacks are included in the military doctrines of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

From Ireland to Iceland to Indonesia, Russia has been mapping out undersea cables that carry vital traffic for all types of commerce, banking, sensitive communications, and more.

Any threats to cut off Russia from the rest of the world could result in Russia cutting off the rest of the world as well.

There are additional targets for Russia and their cold war doctrine that are too numerous to mention in a single article.

However, another consequence of a disruption has become the dependency on technology the public and government have, and what happens when access is interrupted. A recent survey showed what might happen.

'The survey — commissioned by HMD Global, the home of Nokia phones, and conducted by OnePoll — found 55 percent of respondents believe running out of battery power is a 'nightmare scenario.' One in eight people claim that a dying battery actually gives them anxiety.'

Maybe this is the nightmare scenario that will get the attention that a new cold war deserves. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.

 

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