At a moment when corporate America is caught between what it sees as two different nightmares—preventing a crippling attack that brings down America's most critical systems, and preventing Congress from mandating that the private sector spend billions of dollars protecting against that risk—the Telvent experience resonates as a study in ambiguity.
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To some it is prime evidence of the threat that President Obama highlighted in his State of the Union address, when he warned that "our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems," perhaps causing mass casualties. Mr. Obama called anew for legislation to protect critical infrastructure, which was killed last year by a Republican filibuster after intensive lobbying by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
But the security breach of Telvent, which the Chinese government has denied, also raises questions of whether those fears—the subject of weekly research group reports, testimony and Congressional studies—may be somewhat overblown, or whether the precise nature of the threat has been misunderstood.
American intelligence officials believe that the greater danger to the nation's infrastructure may not even be China, but Iran, because of its avowal to retaliate for the Stuxnet virus created by the United States and Israel and unleashed on one of its nuclear sites. But for now, these officials say, that threat is limited by gaps in Iranian technical skills.
There is no doubt that attacks of all kinds are on the rise. The Department of Homeland Security has been responding to intrusions on oil pipelines and electric power organizations at "an alarming rate," according to an agency report last December. Some 198 attacks on the nation's critical infrastructure systems were reported to the agency last year, a 52 percent increase from the number of attacks in 2011.
Researchers at McAfee, a security firm, discovered in 2011 that five multinational oil and gas companies had been attacked by Chinese hackers. The researchers suspected that the Chinese hacking campaign, which they called Night Dragon, had affected more than a dozen companies in the energy industry. More recently, the Department of Energy confirmed in January that its network had been infiltrated, though it has said little about what damage, if any, was done.
But security researchers say that the majority of those attacks were as ambiguous as the Telvent case. They appeared to be more about cyberespionage, intended to bolster the Chinese economy. If the goal was to blow up a pipeline or take down the United States power grid, the attacks would likely have been of a different nature.
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In a recent report, Critical Intelligence, an Idaho Falls security company, said that several cyberattacks by "Chinese adversaries" against North American energy firms seemed intended to steal fracking technologies, reflecting fears by the Chinese government that the shale energy revolution will tip the global energy balance back in America's favor. "These facts are likely a significant motivation behind the wave of sophisticated attacks affecting firms that operate in natural gas, as well as industries that rely on natural gas as an input, including petrochemicals and steelmaking," the Critical Intelligence report said, adding that the attack on Telvent, and "numerous" North American pipeline operators may be related.
American intelligence experts believe that the primary reason China is deterred from conducting an attack on infrastructure in the United States is the simple economic fact that anything that hurts America's financial markets or transportation systems would also have consequences for its own economy. It could interrupt exports to Walmart and threaten the value of China's investments in the United States—which now include a new, big investment in oil and gas.
Iran, however, may be a different threat. While acknowledging that "China is stealing our intellectual property at a rate that qualifies as an epidemic," Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, added a caveat in an interview on Friday. "China is a rational actor," he said. "Iran is not a rational actor."
A new National Intelligence Estimate—a classified document that has not yet been published within the government, but copies of which are circulating for final comments—identifies Iran as one of the other actors besides China who would benefit from the ability to shut down parts of the American economy. Unlike the Chinese, the Iranians have no investments in the United States. As a senior American military official put it, "There's nothing but upside for them to go after American infrastructure."
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While the skills of Iran's newly created "cybercorps" are in doubt, Iranian hackers gained some respect in the technology community when they brought down 30,000 computers belonging to Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, last August, replacing their contents with an image of a burning American flag.
The attack did not affect production facilities or refineries, but it made its point.
"The main target in this attack was to stop the flow of oil and gas to local and international markets and thank God they were not able to achieve their goals," Abdullah al-Saadan, Aramco's vice president for corporate planning, told Al Ekhbariya television.