A Cyberattack Has Caused Confirmed Physical Damage for the Second Time Ever
Amid all the noise the Sony hack generated over the holidays, a far more troubling cyber attack was largely lost in the chaos. Unless you follow security news closely, you likely missed it.
I’m referring to the revelation, in a German report released just before Christmas (.pdf), that hackers had struck an unnamed steel mill in Germany. They did so by manipulating and disrupting control systems to such a degree that a blast furnace could not be properly shut down, resulting in “massive”—though unspecified—damage.
This is only the second confirmed case in which a wholly digital attack caused physical destruction of equipment. The first case, of course, was Stuxnet, the sophisticated digital weapon the U.S. and Israel launched against control systems in Iran in late 2007 or early 2008 to sabotage centrifuges at a uranium enrichment plant. That attack was discovered in 2010, and since then experts have warned that it was only a matter of time before other destructive attacks would occur. Industrial control systems have been found to be rife with vulnerabilities, though they manage critical systems in the electric grid, in water treatment plants and chemical facilities and even in hospitals and financial networks. A destructive attack on systems like these could cause even more harm than at a steel plant.
It’s not clear when the attack in Germany took place. The report, issued by Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (or BSI), indicates the attackers gained access to the steel mill through the plant’s business network, then successively worked their way into production networks to access systems controlling plant equipment. The attackers infiltrated the corporate network using a spear-phishing attack—sending targeted email that appears to come from a trusted source in order to trick the recipient into opening a malicious attachment or visiting a malicious web site where malware is downloaded to their computer. Once the attackers got a foothold on one system, they were able to explore the company’s networks, eventually compromising a “multitude” of systems, including industrial components on the production network.
Steel plants, electric plants, air control, they’re all on the hit list now.