Science fiction-style sabotage a fear in new hacks

Security experts, malicious hackers racing to find weaknesses in industrial computer networks BY JORDAN ROBERTSONAP Technology WriterUpdated: 10-24-2011 1:14 pm

SAN JOSE, Calif.

When a computer attack hobbled Iran’s unfinished nuclear power plant last year, it was assumed to be a military-grade strike, the handiwork of elite hacking professionals with nation-state backing.

Yet for all its science fiction sophistication, key elements have now been replicated in laboratory settings by security experts with little time, money or specialized skill. It is an alarming development that shows how technical advances are eroding the barrier that has long prevented computer assaults from leaping from the digital to the physical world.

The techniques demonstrated in recent months highlight the danger to operators of power plants, water systems and other critical infrastructure around the world.

“Things that sounded extremely unlikely a few years ago are now coming along,” said Scott Borg, director of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit group that helps the U.S. government prepare for future attacks.

While the experiments have been performed in laboratory settings, and the findings presented at security conferences or in technical papers, the danger of another real-world attack such as the one on Iran is profound.

The team behind the so-called Stuxnet worm that was used to attack the Iranian nuclear facility may still be active. New malicious software with some of Stuxnet’s original code and behavior has surfaced, suggesting ongoing reconnaissance against industrial control systems.

And attacks on critical infrastructure are increasing. The Idaho National Laboratory, home to secretive defense labs intended to protect the nation’s power grids, water systems and other critical infrastructure, has responded to triple the number of computer attacks from clients this year over last, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has revealed.

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