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Biden vows to protect oil, gas and water infrastructure

Cyberattacks up 50% globally as hackers target critical networks

Crude oil storage tanks are seen at the Cushing petroleum hub in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. A cyberattack has brought renewed attention to the vulnerability of American energy infrastructure.   © Reuters

TOKYO/NEW YORK -- The weekend cyberattack on a major U.S. pipeline system served as a grim minder of the threat facing infrastructure that forms the backbone of the economy as incidents occur with increasing frequency.

Cyberattacks on key infrastructure -- including energy networks, factories and water supply systems -- rose 50% across the world from the prior year in 2020, according to IBM. In a growing number of cases, state actors are suspected to be involved.

The FBI confirmed on Monday that the ransomware group responsible for the pipeline network is DarkSide, an experienced group of cyber criminals who have already hacked into scores of companies in the U.S. and Europe.

The targeted pipeline, which provides the East Coast with nearly half of its gasoline and jet fuel, has remained shut since Friday. The operator, Colonial Pipeline, says it expects to 'substantially' restore operations by the end of the week. 

President Joe Biden on Monday said his administration "is committed to safeguarding our critical infrastructure."

"We launched a new public private initiative in April, began the 100-day sprint to improve cyber security in the electric sector, and we'll follow that with similar initiatives in natural gas pipelines, water and other sectors," he said.

To fend off a fuel shortage, the U.S. Department of Transportation has decided to temporarily ease regulations to make it easier to use tank trucks and other alternative means to transport fuel.

"Right now there is not a supply shortage," U.S. Homeland Security Advisor and Deputy National Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall told reporters Monday. "We are preparing for multiple possible contingencies."

President Joe Biden's White House has set up an emergency working group to contend with potential energy issues stemming from the pipeline attack.   © Reuters

Biden said his administration has been "tracking extremely carefully" and that he has been personally briefed every day on the matter.

The incident is believed to be a ransomeware attack, in which hackers demand a ransom to unscramble computer systems that they lock up by encrypting data. The FBI immediately launched an investigation, but this has become a whack-a-mole game as attacks become frequent around the globe.

"We're prepared to take additional steps, depending on how quickly the company is able to bring this pipeline back to full operational capacity," Biden said Monday.

The Biden White House has called cybersecurity a "top priority" in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March.

In February, a computer system at a water treatment plant in Florida was hacked and the concentration of sodium hydroxide, or lye, in the water was increased to more than 100 times normal levels. Hackers gained access to a software called TeamViewer used by employees to control the system remotely. While lye is a chemical used to treat water, ingesting large amounts is harmful.

The public was not harmed because operators of the system noticed the suspicious activity and immediately adjusted the lye level back. But the identity of the hackers remains unknown.

There were 468 cyberattacks on the computer systems of social infrastructure or large factories in 2020, according to IBM. This includes cases in which there was no damage but there potentially could have been. The share of manufacturers grew to 18% from 8%, while that of the energy sector rose to 11% from 6%.

"Systems are connected to the outside through the introduction of digital transformation initiatives and cloud computing, so they have quickly become easier to target," says a senior security official at IBM Japan.

In April, the Iranian government announced a power failure at its Natanz uranium enrichment site in what Iranian officials called an act of sabotage. 

"The cyber threat against infrastructure has been growing recently, so the level of vigilance needs to be raised further," said Hiroki Iwai, head of cybersecurity consultant Sighnt.

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