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article imageUS examines possible cyber attack on water system in Illinois

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By Leigh Goessl     Nov 19, 2011 in Technology
A preliminary state report suggests hackers may have caused a pump to fail at a water plant in Springfield, Illinois on Nov. 8.
The Washington Post reported federal officials confirmed both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are investigating damage sustained at the Illinois water plant, but "cautioned against concluding that it was necessarily a cyber-attack before all the facts could be learned."
"At this time there is no credible corroborated data that indicates a risk to critical infrastructure entities or a threat to public safety,” said DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard.
Reportedly a security expert named Joe Weiss obtained a Nov. 10 report which outlined details collected by an Illinois state intelligence center. Weiss read the report to the Washington Post, but the source of the information has not been confirmed or verified.
The Post shared the report described, "how a series of minor glitches with a water pump gradually escalated to the point where the pump motor was being turned on and off frequently. It soon burned out, according to the report."
Early findings indicate the hackers may have been traced to Russia.
“This is a big deal,” said Weiss. “It was tracked to Russia. It has been in the system for at least two to three months. It has caused damage. We don’t know how many other utilities are currently compromised.”
It is not uncommon to discover that information systems that house data or rely upon the Internet to operate, both in the private or public sector, are routine targets, mostly aimed to steal data or cause disruptions. However this hacking incident changes the dynamics because physical structures, which run on computers, were affected rather than the more commonly-found exploits of data-oriented systems.
If these suspicions are founded this would be the first time a known utility structure has been damaged in the United States. The current suspicion, according to the report obtained by The Washington Post, said the hackers obtained user names and passwords to a software management company which had access to control systems that run water plant computer equipment. Obtaining this information allowed the hackers to exploit the Illinois water plant.
Last year's Stuxnet malware, that targeted Iran's nuclear facilities was a huge discovery and cause for concern in the information security industry. After Stuxnet emerged, experts did warn that similar types of malware could be in the makings.
Reuters reported this attack "highlights the risk that attackers can break into what is known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems."
SCADA systems control critical infrastructure such as telecommunications, chemical plants, nuclear facilities, gas pipelines and water treatment facilities, and train line switches.
At this time the situation has not been 100 percent confirmed and is still in the investigation stages, there are a lot of unknowns. It is important to consider hackers can also fake IP addresses which throw suspicion off true origins of any criminal activity by masking their location.
Joe Weiss has also posted about the incident on his blog.
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