By SIOBHAN GORMAN and DANNY YADRON
WASHINGTON -- Iranian-backed hackers have escalated a campaign of cyberassaults against US corporations by launching infiltration and surveillance missions against the computer networks running energy companies, according to current and former US officials.
In the latest operations, the Iranian hackers were able to gain access to control-system software that could allow them to manipulate oil or gas pipelines. They proceeded "far enough to worry people," one former official said.
The developments show that while Chinese hackers pose widespread intellectual-property-theft and espionage concerns, the Iranian assaults have emerged as far more worrisome because of their apparent hostile intent and potential for damage or sabotage.
US officials consider this set of Iranian infiltrations to be more alarming than another continuing campaign, also believed to be backed by Tehran, that disrupts bank websites by "denial of service" strikes. Unlike those, the more recent campaigns actually have broken into computer systems to gain information on the controls running company operations and, through reconnaissance, acquired the means to disrupt or destroy them in the future, the US officials said.
In response, US officials warn that Iran is edging closer to provoking US retaliation.
"This is representative of stepped-up cyber activity by the Iranian regime. The more they do this, the more our concerns grow," a US official said. "What they have done so far has certainly been noticed, and they should be cautious."
The US has previously launched its own cyberattacks against Iran. The Stuxnet worm, developed and launched by the US and Israel, sabotaged an Iranian nuclear facility.
The latest campaign, which the US believes has direct backing from the Iranian government, has focused on the control systems that run oil and gas companies and, more recently, power companies, current and former officials said. Control systems run the operations of critical infrastructure, regulating the flow of oil and gas or electricity, turning systems on and off, and controlling key functions.
In theory, manipulating the software could be used to delete important data or turn off key safety features such as the automatic lubrication of a generator, experts said.
Current and former US officials wouldn't name the energy companies involved in the attacks or say how many there were. But among the targets were oil and gas companies along the Canadian border, where many firms have operations, two former officials said.
The officials also wouldn't detail the precise nature of the evidence of Iranian involvement. But the US has "technical evidence" directly linking the hacking of energy companies to Iran, one former US official said.
Iranian officials deny any involvement in hacking. "Although Iran has been repeatedly the target of state-sponsored cyberattacks, attempting to target Iran's civilian nuclear facilities, power grids, oil terminals and other industrial sectors, Iran has not ever retaliated against those illegal cyberattacks," said Iran's spokesman at the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi. "In the lack of international legal instruments to address cyberwarfare, Iran has been at the forefront of calling for creating such instruments. We categorically reject these baseless allegations used only to divert attentions."
So far, the infiltrations don't appear to have involved theft of data or disruption of operations. But officials worry the reconnaissance undertaken to datewill provide hackers the information they need to do damage in the future. Computer infiltration experts often identify so-called backdoors in computer systems that permit repeated entries.
While there is no evidence that systems have been tampered with, some US officials have likened the types of infiltrations seen in the US to those at oil company Saudi Aramco that eventually enabled attacks that destroyed 30,000 computers in August 2012.
It isn't clear whether the hackers are the same individuals responsible for Saudi Aramco or those involved in the relentless set of attacks that have bombarded bank websites, temporarily knocking them offline.
The US Department of Homeland Security earlier this month warned of an escalation in threats against computerized control systems, but it didn't cite Iran as the origin of the threat.
In recent months, however, US officials have grown increasingly alarmed by the growth of what defense officials describe as a continuing series of cyberattacks backed by the Iranian government, including its elite Quds Force. The threat has grown quickly; as recently as 18 months ago, top intelligence officials were largely dismissive of Iranian hacking capabilities.
Underscoring the Obama administration's growing concern, the White House held a high-level meeting late last month on how to handle the Iranian cybersecurity threat. No decisions were made at that meeting to take action, however, and officials will reconvene in coming weeks to reassess, a US official said.
"It's reached a really critical level," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who frequently advises the White House and Capitol Hill. "We don't have much we can do in response, short of kinetic warfare."
The Obama administration sees the energy-company infiltrations as a signal that Iran hasn't responded to deterrence, a former official said.
In October, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a veiled threat to Iran, which he did not name in his speech, by warning the Saudi Aramco hack represented a dangerous escalation in cyberwarfare. Since then, the Iranian attacks have only ramped up.
Unlike Chinese hacking, the Iranian infiltrations and cyberattacks appear intended to disrupt and possibly damage computer systems. "The differentiator is the intent. Stealing versus disrupting raises different concerns," the US official said. "That's why they're getting a fair amount of attention."
The recent growth of Chinese infiltrations primarily has been aimed at stealing military and trade secrets, not doing damage.
"The Chinese believe in stability, and they operate on a 50-year plan," said Tom Kellerman, vice president of Trend Micro, a cybersecurity research firm. "Iran has been successfully ostracized from global economics. It is in their best interest to pursue destructive cyberattacks to not only empower themselves but to signal to the Western world they are capable in cyberspace."
Cybersecurity specialists say the electric-power industry remains under-prepared to fend off attacks, particularly ones backed by a foreign government.
"If you were worried about cyberattacks against electric utilities five years ago, you're still worried today," said Jacob Olcott, a former cybersecurity aide on Capitol Hill now at GoodHarbor Consulting. "Some within the electric sector have become more savvy about security in recent years. Many are not."
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are stepping up pressure to bolster cybersecurity in the electric-power sector. Reps. Edward Markey (D., Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) issued a report this week citing security gaps in the computer networks running the electric grid.
Based on a survey of 150 power companies, the report found that "more than a dozen utilities reported "daily," "constant" or "frequent" attempted cyberattacks," and one said it was the target of about 10,000 attempted cyberattacks each month. The report found that many electric utilities were adopting only mandatory cybersecurity standards and not implementing voluntary added precautions.
Dow Jones Newswires