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Attack on Ireland's state-owned power provider blamed on state-sponsored hackers

Graham CLULEY

August 08, 2017

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Attack on Ireland's state-owned power provider blamed on state-sponsored hackers

EirGrid, which provides electricity to homes and businesses across Ireland and Northern Ireland, reportedly suffered a security breach earlier this year at the hands of state-sponsored hackers.

The allegation is made in a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, which made details of the alleged attack in April 2017 public this weekend.

According to the media report, the attack against EirGrid’s network saw hackers compromise routers used by the firm, installing a man-in-the-middle “virtual wire tap” on Vodafone’s Direct Internet Access (DIA) service at Shotton, Wales. This allowed the hackers to intercept unencrypted messages sent between the power provider’s Welsh and Northern Irish companies.

Vodafone has reportedly told EirGrid that it currently has “no idea” how much data might have been snooped upon by an unauthorised third-party. However, it is believed that the attacker was able to copy firmware and files from the compromised router devices.

The hack allegedly only came to light two months after the original breach, after a tip-off from Vodafone and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ.

In addition, the network of SONI – an electricity operator headquartered in Belfast and owned by EirGrid – is also said to have been compromised by the hackers.

A spokesperson for EirGrid declined to comment specifically on the attack, and chose instead to underline that hacking attacks are becoming a growing issue for many in the energy industry:

“It is EirGrid Group”s policy not to comment publicly on specific operational matters related to cyber security, however, we are aware of the currently reported focus on energy companies and national infrastructure and wish to state that our computer systems have not been breached.”

The big question of course is this: who was behind the attack and for what purpose?

Previously, many have pointed the finger of suspicion at Russia after a series of power outages in Ukraine caused by hacking attacks on the country’s electric grid.

Last month, Motherboard reported that the NCSC had warned that “advanced state-sponsored hostile threat actors” were targeting the energy and manufacturing sectors, and that some organisations were “likely to be compromised.”

The warning followed closely on the heels of a private warning sent to US businesses by the FBI and US Department of Homeland Security, warning that hackers were sending emails with poisoned Word documents to infect organisations with malware.

The media reports about the attack on EirGrid suggest that the IP addresses of the hacking computers were based in Ghana and Bulgaria, but it’s child’s play for a even an unsophisticated hacker to disguise their true location.

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