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Russian Hackers Appear Focused on Disrupting U.S. Power Grid

July 31, 2018

According to U.S. intelligence officials and technology company executives, state-sponsored Russian hackers appear more focused in disrupting the U.S. power grid than midterm elections. Apart from attempts to infiltrate the online accounts of two Senate Democrats who are up for re-election, intelligence officials have seen relatively little effort by Russian hackers aimed at major U.S. political figures or state voter registration systems. But intelligence officials and technology executives have seen more effort at implanting malware in the country’s electric grid.

Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security reported that, over the past year, Russia’s military intelligence agency had penetrated the control rooms of power plants across the U.S. And though there is no evidence that it tried to take control over the plants (as it did in Ukraine in 2015 and 2016), penetrating the control rooms would theoretically allow it to take control remotely. Intelligence officials said that the White House has played down this major threat.

Why has there been less activity in 2018 midterm elections than in the 2016 presidential election? It could be due to Russian hackers holding off on until closer to Election Day. With the recent indictments of 12 Russian military officers accused of interfering with the 2016 election, they may be aware they are being closely watched by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence outlets. It could be due to the fact that midterm elections are harder to interfere with than a presidential race. There are over 460 elections; many would be of little interest to Russia.

This does not mean, however, that Russian hackers have stopped targeting politicians altogether. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said last week that her office had been attacked unsuccessfully. In attacks like this, it is difficult to discern the hackers’ exact motivation. The attack could be related to Senator McCaskill’s bid for re-election. It could be related to the Senator’s service on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Microsoft officials detected and stopped the attack in October and November. A court order allowed Microsoft to seize control of the internet domains created by the hackers that looked like official Microsoft sites but were not.

It is also difficult to discern why Russian hackers have put significant effort into implanting malware in the U.S. electric grid. The biggest fear is that Russia is perhaps planning to shut down U.S. power systems during a time of conflict. But according to General Paul M. Nakasone, director of the N.S.A., this would almost certainly result in a military response. Instead, the hackers could just want to show what they are capable of. Regardless of the hackers’ motivation, any attack could have major consequences and this development is one to watch in the future.