Security researcher Brian Wallace was on the trail of hackers who had snatched a California university’s housing files when he discovered that cyberattackers had opened a pathway into the networks running the U.S. power grid, reports the Associated Press. Digital clues pointed to Iranian hackers. Wallace found that they had already taken passwords, as well as engineering drawings of dozens of power plants, at least one with the title “Mission Critical.” The drawings were so detailed that experts say skilled attackers could have used them, along with other tools and malicious code, to knock out electricity flowing to millions of homes.
A dozen times in the last decade, sophisticated foreign hackers have gained enough remote access to control the operations networks that keep the lights on, say to top experts who spoke on condition of anonymity. The public almost never learns the details about these types of attacks. Information about the government’s response to these hacks is often protected and sometimes classified. The intrusions have not caused the kind of cascading blackouts that are feared by the intelligence community. So many attackers have stowed away in the systems that run the U.S. electric grid that experts say they likely have the capability to strike at will. “If the geopolitical situation changes and Iran wants to target these facilities, if they have this kind of information it will make it a lot easier,” said Robert Lee, a former U.S. Air Force cyberwarfare operations officer. “It will also help them stay quiet and stealthy inside.”