Cyberattack suspected in Ukraine power outage

Ukraine's national power company investigates whether hacking caused blackout in Kiev

Security experts are investigating whether a power outage that affected parts of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and the surrounding region this weekend was the result of a cyberattack. If confirmed, it would be the second blackout caused by hackers in Ukraine.

The incident affected the automation control systems at the northern power substation near Novi Petrivtsi, a village near Kiev, close to midnight between Saturday and Sunday. This resulted in complete power loss for the northern part of Kiev on the right bank of the Dnieper river and the surrounding region.

Engineers from Ukrenergo, Ukraine's national power company, switched the equipment to manual control mode and started restoring power within 30 minutes, said Vsevolod Kovalchuk, acting director of Ukrenergo, in a post on Facebook. Full power was restored to all affected areas in about an hour and 15 minutes.

One suspected cause is "external interference through the data network," Kovalchuk said. The company's cybersecurity experts are investigating and will release a report.

Among the possible causes for the crash are hacking and faulty equipment, Ukrenergo said in a statement. Law enforcement agencies have been alerted and are carrying out a thorough investigation. Until the results come back, all the systems that have automatic control have been switched to local control, the company said.

If the hacking is confirmed, this would be the second time that power has been disrupted in Ukraine because of a cyberattack. Almost a year ago, shortly before Christmas, hackers launched a coordinated attack against three Ukrainian regional power companies. They managed to switch off power at multiple substations, causing blackouts that lasted between three and 6 hours and impacted the residents in several regions.

The Ukrainian security service, the SBU, attributed the attack at the time to Russia. Even though there's no definitive evidence that links the attacks to the Russian government, the attackers used a piece of malware of Russian origin called BlackEnergy, and the attack's complexity suggests the involvement of a nation state.

Last week, researchers from security vendor ESET warned about recent attacks against high-value targets from the Ukrainian financial sector that were carried out by a group that shares many similarities with the BlackEnergy group.

Power outages are common in wintertime in former USSR countries, because of old equipment, so additional information is needed before reaching a conclusion about the cause of this weekend's blackout, said Alex Mathews, Lead Security Evangelist at vulnerability assessment and compliance management company Positive Technologies. "On the other hand, we should recognize that the chances of successful cyberattacks on power grids are growing in the modern world due to the Internet," he said.

Positive Technologies' research showed that building automation and energy management systems are the most common types of industrial control systems that were reachable via the Internet in 2016. Only two thirds of these systems can be called secure, Mathews said.

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Lucian Constantin

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