Experts weigh in on possible cyber attacks - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Experts weigh in on possible cyber attacks


Cyber attacks what many fear are the new face of terrorism. Experts say the keyboard can create more disastrous results than a bomb or natural disaster.

On April 27, 2011, tornadoes hit Alabama hard, wiping the power supply to millions of homes for days. Could the results of that natural disaster be recreated by man in the form of a cyber attack?

For those in the industry of preventing cyber attacks, it's a continuing game of cat and a click of a mouse. For the Tennessee Valley, the heart of power generation lies with TVA and nuclear power from Browns Ferry.

Rob Arnold heads up the team of trained professionals who oversee cyber security operations for TVA. Right away, Arnold put even the chance of a cyber induced nuclear meltdown to rest.

"It's not theoretically possible for an individual at home on his laptop to control our plant centrifuges," said Arnold, Enterprise Cyber Security Manager.

That's because none of the reactors are connected to the internet - their controls are hard wired into the facility. That's not to say organized crime hasn't tried other avenues.

TVA officials recognize cyber hits to its business network in the form of "commercial grade mal-ware or recreational espionage," where hackers try to tap into the computers that control TVA's administrative functions, or internal emails, and customer information. That includes "phishing attacks," where hackers literally fish for information a little bit at a time.

So years ago, TVA separated their business network from their control systems that operate equipment to give hackers less ability to take down all of TVA at once.

"TVA recognizes the threat to our cyber security," said Arnold. "We are a high valued target because we are a federal corporation, we're a government entity, and we understand those threats."

An eye opener came on April 27th 2011, where tornadoes caused the worst damage TVA had seen in 40 years.

"That event showed us our weaknesses," said Arnold. "Some of the lessons learned is we had to do some of the same things with our information technology as well and put redundant paths, redundant communications whether it be satellite, whether it be microwave communications because we lost a lot of those capabilities at that time."

However, with all that protection in place for outsiders, what about those on the inside? For example, internal sabotage. The same people who know to fix problems at TVA know how to create them, too.

"Without a doubt, the possibility exists," said Arnold. "We do background investigations, pre-employment on individuals, we do clearance checks."

Officials at TVA seem to be more worried about a "hybrid attack," where a cyber attack and a physical attack like on a substation happen at the same time.

Last year, crooks skipped the web and went straight for a California power grid by opening fire on an electrical substation, knocking out 17 giant transformers and power to millions of customers.

TVA has never seen that kind of attack, but industry leaders believe if it was copied across the nation, it could take down the U.S. electric grid.

For those who want to wreak havoc, there's a market for that too. Hitting a power source is one thing, but what about a water source?

Huntsville Utilities did not grant an interview on what they do to protect against cyber attacks for security reasons. The utility company released a statement saying they "continue to work on the reliability of their systems to minimize service interruptions for customers for any reason."

They certainly want to prevent what reportedly happened to Redstone Arsenal last year when defense contractor Qinetiq admitted that Chinese spies stole passwords and possibly used that information as a way to break into the arsenal, home of the Army's Aviation and Missile Command.

Industrial Cyber Expert Bryan Singer said hackers aren't always in it to create the biggest splash; sometimes it's just about creating a nuisance and costing a company millions of dollars.

However, if a company invests in protection up front, it will pay off later.

"We'll always be somewhat behind on the latest attack trend, yes," said Singer. "However, there's not been a single attack trend I've seen that a well designed, robust system architecture can't prevent against."

Local industry leaders are starting to share ideas. The Cyber Huntsville organization pulls experts in the field together to collaborate and raise the level of awareness in the cyber community and educate younger minds in the process.

"There's a lot of folks that are paying attention to this these days which is good news," said Singer. "Does it stop the threats going on now, does it stop the future threats? No, but it does help prepare us better to react to them when they do occur."

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