Ransomware Shuts US Colonial Pipeline 05/09 08:52
The federal government is working with the Georgia-based company that shut
down a major pipeline transporting fuel across the East Coast after a
ransomware attack, the White House says.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The federal government is working with the Georgia-based
company that shut down a major pipeline transporting fuel across the East Coast
after a ransomware attack, the White House says.
The government is planning for various scenarios and working with state and
local authorities on measures to mitigate any potential supply issues,
officials said Saturday. The attack is unlikely to affect gasoline supply and
prices unless it leads to a prolonged shutdown, experts said.
Colonial Pipeline did not say what was demanded or who made the demand.
Ransomware attacks are typically carried out by criminal hackers who scramble
data, paralyzing victim networks, and demand a large payment to decrypt it.
The attack on the company, which says it delivers roughly 45% of fuel
consumed on the East Coast, underscores again the vulnerabilities of critical
infrastructure to damaging cyberattacks that threaten to impede operations. It
presents a new challenge for an administration still dealing with its response
to major hacks from months ago, including a massive breach of government
agencies and corporations for which the U.S. sanctioned Russia last month.
In this case, Colonial Pipeline said the ransomware attack Friday affected
some of its information technology systems and that the company moved
"proactively" to take certain systems offline, halting pipeline operations. In
an earlier statement, it said it was "taking steps to understand and resolve
this issue" with an eye toward returning to normal operations.
The Alpharetta, Georgia-based company transports gasoline, diesel, jet fuel
and home heating oil from refineries located on the Gulf Coast through
pipelines running from Texas to New Jersey. Its pipeline system spans more than
5,500 miles, transporting more than 100 million gallon a day.
The private cybersecurity firm FireEye said it's been hired to manage the
incident response investigation.
Oil analyst Andy Lipow said the impact of the attack on fuel supplies and
prices depends on how long the pipeline is down. An outage of one day or two
would be minimal, he said, but an outage of five or six days could cause
shortages and price hikes, particularly in an area stretching from central
Alabama to the Washington, D.C., region.
Lipow said a key concern about a lengthy delay would be the supply of jet
fuel needed to keep major airports operating, like those in Atlanta and
Charlotte, North Carolina.
A leading expert in industrial control systems, Dragos CEO Robert Lee, said
systems such as those that directly manage the pipeline's operation have been
increasingly connected to computer networks in the past decade.
But critical infrastructure companies in the energy and electricity
industries also tend to have invested more in cybersecurity than other sectors.
If Colonial's shutdown was mostly precautionary -- and it detected the
ransomware attack early and was well-prepared -- the impact may not be great,
While there have long been fears about U.S. adversaries disrupting American
energy suppliers, ransomware attacks by criminal syndicates are much more
common and have been soaring lately. The Justice Department has a new task
force dedicated to countering ransomware attacks.
The attack "underscores the threat that ransomware poses to organizations
regardless of size or sector," said Eric Goldstein, executive assistant
director of the cybersecurity division at the federal Cybersecurity
Infrastructure and Security Agency.
"We encourage every organization to take action to strengthen their
cybersecurity posture to reduce their exposure to these types of threats,"
Goldstein said in a statement.
Ransomware scrambles a victim organization's data with encryption. The
criminals leave instructions on infected computers for how to negotiate ransom
payments and, once paid, provide software decryption keys.
The attacks, mostly by criminal syndicates operating out of Russia and other
safe havens, reached epidemic proportions last year, costing hospitals, medical
researchers private businesses, state and local governments and schools tens of
billions of dollars. Biden administration officials are warning of a national
security threat, especially after criminals began stealing data before
scrambling victim networks and saying they will expose it online unless a
ransom is paid.
Average ransoms paid in the United States jumped nearly threefold to more
than $310,000 last year. The average downtime for victims of ransomware attacks
is 21 days, according to the firm Coveware, which helps victims respond.
U.S. law enforcement officials say some of these criminals have worked with
Russia's security services and that the Kremlin benefits by damaging
adversaries' economies. These operations also potentially provide cover for
"Ransomware is the most common disruptive event that organizations are
seeing right now that would cause them to shut down to prevent the spread,"
said Dave White, president of cybersecurity firm Axio.
Mike Chapple, teaching professor of IT, analytics and operations at the
University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business and a former computer
scientist with the National Security Agency, said systems that control
pipelines should not be connected to the internet and vulnerable to cyber
"The attacks were extremely sophisticated and they were able to defeat some
pretty sophisticated security controls, or the right degree of security
controls weren't in place," Chapple said.
Brian Bethune, a professor of applied economics at Boston College, also said
the impact on consumer prices should be short-lived as long as the shutdown
does not last for more than a week or two. "But it is an indication of how
vulnerable our infrastructure is to these kinds of cyberattacks," he said.
Bethune noted the shutdown is occurring at a time when energy prices have
already been rising as the economy reopens further as pandemic restrictions are
lifted. According to the AAA auto club, the national average for a gallon of
regular gasoline has increased by 4 cents since Monday to $2.94.
Anne Neuberger, the Biden administration's deputy national security adviser
for cybersecurity and emerging technology, said in an interview with The
Associated Press in April that the government was undertaking a new effort to
help electric utilities, water districts and other critical industries protect
against potentially damaging cyberattacks. She said the goal was to ensure that
control systems serving 50,000 or more Americans have the core technology to
detect and block malicious cyber activity.
Since then, the White House has announced a 100-day initiative aimed at
protecting the country's electricity system from cyberattacks by encouraging
owners and operators of power plants and electric utilities to improve their
capabilities for identifying cyber threats to their networks. It includes
concrete milestones for them to put technologies into use so they can spot and
respond to intrusions in real time.