The state-sanctioned Russian hackers suspected of meddling in the 2016 presidential election recently tried to hack into the U.S. electricity grid through a Vermont utility, raising already high concerns over domestic cyber security, officials said Friday.
The hackers got into a laptop at the Burlington Electric Department using the same malware code that U.S. intelligence officials have tied to the hacks targeting the Hillary Clinton campaign earlier this year, a spokesman for the utility company said in a statement.
“We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding,” the spokesperson said, adding the targeted computer was not connected to the grid at the time of the hack. “Our team is working with federal officials to trace this malware and prevent any other attempts to inflitrate utility systems.”
The headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in downtown Moscow. FSB has been accused by U.S. officials of meddling in the 2016 presidential election through cyberattacks.
Officials at the Vermont company first discovered the breach after running a system-wide scan requested by the Department of Homeland Security in light of a Thursday report from the Obama administration outlining Russia’s alleged role in the election hacks.
While the hackers are not believed to have disrupted the utility’s operations, several officials who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post that the penetration is alarming as any disruption to the nation’s highly computerized electricity grid could have disastrous consequences for medical and emergency services.
A worker for the Burlington Electric Department, which reported a breach into its electricity grid Friday.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy called the hack “a serious threat” in a Friday evening statement.
“This is beyond hackers having electronic joy rides — this is now about trying to access utilities to potentially manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter,” the Democratic Senator said. “That is a direct threat to Vermont and we do not take it lightly.”
It was not immediately clear what the hackers’ intensions were, but they may just have been testing the waters to see how hard it is to penetrate part of the grid, officials said.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have concluded that Russia’s election hack campaign — dubbed “Grizzly Steppe” by intelligence officials — was made possible through so called “spearphishing” emails that trick recipients into revealing their passwords. The utility hack could have been carried out in a similar manner, according to officials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vehemently denied all hacking allegations.
This is not the first time Russia has been accused of hacking electricity grids.
In 2015, Russian hackers allegedly tied to the Kremlin destabilized Ukraine’s power grid, causing blackouts throughout that country’s capital. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, claimed Russian hackers have launched over 6,500 cyber-attacks against Ukrainian state institutions in the past two months alone.
People in Donetsk, Ukraine recharge their cell phones in a tunnel after power outages believed to have been caused by Russian cyberattacks hit the city.
(Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
The utility hack in Vermont comes as the Obama administration is gearing up to sanction Russia over its alleged role in interfering in the election to ensure a Donald Trump victory. The intelligence community’s conclusion that the “Grizzly Steppe” operation could only have been authorized by senior Russian officials tarnished an already tense relationship between President Obama and President Vladimir Putin.
President-elect Trump, meanwhile, has expressed doubt over the intelligence community’s consensus, and on Friday praised Putin as “very smart” for deciding to not immediatly retaliate against the U.S. over the newly imposed sanctions.