US investigators are looking into a report that hackers managed to remotely shut down a utility’s water pump in Illinois last week.
The November 8 incident was described in a one-page report from the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center, according to Joe Weiss, a prominent expert on protecting infrastructure from cyber-attacks.
The attackers obtained access to the network of a water utility in a rural community west of the state capital Springfield with credentials stolen from a company that makes software used to control industrial systems, according to the account obtained by Weiss. It did not explain the motive of the attackers.
He said that the same group may have attacked other industrial targets or be planning strikes using credentials stolen from the same software maker.
The US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are examining the matter, said DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard. "At this time there is no credible corroborated data that indicates a risk to critical infrastructure entities or a threat to public safety," he said, declining to elaborate further. An FBI spokesman in Illinois did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Cyber security experts said that the reported attack highlights the risk that attackers can break into what is known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. They are highly specialized computer systems that control critical infrastructure - from water treatment facilities, chemicals plants and nuclear reactors to gas pipelines, dams and switches on train lines.
The issue of securing SCADA systems from cyber-attacks made international headlines last year after the mysterious Stuxnet virus attacked a centrifuge at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Many experts say that was a major setback for Iran's nuclear weapon's program and attribute the attack to the United States and Israel.
In 2007, researchers at the US government's Idaho National Laboratories identified a vulnerability in the electric grid, demonstrating how much damage a cyber-attack could inflict on a large diesel generator.
Lani Kass, who retired in September as senior policy adviser to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States should take the possibility of a cyber-attack seriously.
"The going in hypothesis is always that it's just an incident or coincidence. And if every incident is seen in isolation, it's hard - if not impossible - to discern a pattern or connect the dots," Kass said.
"Failure to connect the dots led us to be surprised on 9/11," she said, describing the September 11, 2001 hijacking attacks as a prime example in which authorities dismissed indicators of an impending disaster and were caught unaware.
Representative Jim Lanvevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said that the report of the attack highlighted the need to pass legislation to improve cyber security of the US critical infrastructure.
"The stakes are too high for us to fail, and our citizens will be the ones to suffer the consequences of our inaction," he said in a statement.