Hackers Turn Ukrainian Infrastructure into 'Powder Keg'

Ukraine power cybersecurity hackers
An electricity generating plant in Kiev, Ukraine, November 27, 2015. Cybersecurity lapses have left critical Ukrainian infrastructure like a "powder keg", security researchers said. Valentyn Ogirenko/ Reuters

Hackers targeting Ukraine's power grid and other critical infrastructure have turned the country into a "powder keg", cybersecurity experts have said.

Several attacks have already taken place against regional power plants in Ukraine, resulting in several short-term blackouts in December 2015. It was the first recorded case of power outages being caused by cyber attacks and originated from a type of malware known as BlackEnergy.

It is not clear who was behind the attacks but a military spokesperson stated last week that they were originating from Russia. Another type of malware has since been discovered by investigators looking into the December cyber attacks, although researchers say it is impossible to know how many systems are currently at risk.

"This is the scariest thing—we're living on a powder keg," Olech Sych, a consultant to government investigators, told Reuters. "We don't know where else has been compromised. We can protect everything, we can teach administrators never to open emails, but the system is already infected."

According to Sych, an "air gap" was breached when power plant workers ignored security protocols and connected critical computers to the Internet. This allowed hackers to gain access to the internal network.

"A possible objective was to bring down some branches [of the Ukrainian energy system] and create a 'domino effect' to collapse the entire system of Ukraine or a significant part," Sych said.

"We understand that this couldn't have happened without an insider. To carry out this kind of attack you need to know what kind of operating system and SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition] are used and what software controls the industrial facility."

Oleksander Svetelyk, Ukraine's deputy energy minister, said on Tuesday that "a lot of errors" had been made by the companies involved and that cybersecurity experts would be meeting in Kiev this week to assist the investigation.