WASHINGTON – Now that U.S. intelligence has blamed North Korea for the Nov. 24 cyber attack on Sony Pictures, there is growing concern that the Hermit Kingdom has the capability of bringing down the vulnerable U.S. national grid system.
However, national security experts question North Korea’s capability to take down an entire grid system alone through a cyber attack, as opposed to targeting an individual company.
The basis for the attack on Sony was the Dec. 25 release of the comedy movie “The Interview,” which depicts the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, engaged in an orgy and ultimately being assassinated, with the top of his head blown off by agents of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The success of the Sony attack, with the warning from the hackers that cinemas showing the movie would be attacked, prompted Sony to cancel release of the movie.
The FBI confirmed Friday it now has “enough information to conclude the North Korean government is responsible for these actions.”
The move not only increased concern that North Korea, a sophisticated proxy or any cyber could bring the U.S. to its knees through attacks on its critical infrastructure, it demonstrated an ability to curb American citizens’ First Amendment right of free expression.
At first, North Korea wasn’t assessed to have the capability of such an electronic attack. But U.S. intelligence sources said the hacking increases the threat of an attack on the nation’s life-sustaining, critical infrastructure.
Reuters, citing defectors, reported Friday the hacking attack may have been a practice run for North Korea’s elite cyber-army in a long-term goal of being able to cripple telecoms and energy grids in rival nations.
Sources told WND it was the 3,000-person North Korean Unit 121 that undertook the sophisticated attack on Sony.
“You have to assume that North Korea is in our grid,” said retired Col. Cedric Leighton, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer.
He did not elaborate on the extent of the communist nation’s ability to launch a cyber attack on the U.S. grid.
There are limits on North Korea’s capability that have led other experts to suggest North Korea worked through a cutout or a proxy in another country that is more technically capable and has direct access to the Internet.
To underscore the potential of its cyber-attack capabilities, Peter Pry, who was staff director to the congressionally mandated commission that studied the impact of an electromagnetic pulse event, or EMP, on the grid and other critical infrastructures that depend on it, said North Korea has invested heavily in cyber-warfare capabilities over the past 20 years.
Pry also is executive director of the congressional advisory Task Force on National and Homeland Security, and spoke with WND in an exclusive interview.
He said Bureau 121, which is equivalent to U.S. Cyber Command, is oriented strictly for offensive purposes. Pry said North Korea has no civilian Internet, and so there is nothing it has to defend from a cyber attack from outside the country.
He pointed out that North Korea’s critical infrastructures, like the electric power grid, are not hooked into the Web and, therefore, cannot be hacked or cyber attacked from the outside.
Russia and China similarly have isolated their critical infrastructures from cyber attack, he said, and they have hardened their grids against a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack as well.
On the other hand, the U.S. and its allies are vulnerable due to their interconnectivity to the Web.
While China and Russia have the capability to black out the U.S. national power grid through a cyber attack, Pry said that it was “unlikely that North Korea has such advanced cyber attack capabilities.”
He pointed out that a unit of North Korea’s Bureau 121 operates out of China, suggesting Pyongyang may not have acted alone or, if it could target the U.S. electrical grid, would need the help of a country such as China, with its cyber capabilities.
Pry points out the U.S. electric power grid is run by some 3,000 different utilities using different equipment and different software in their Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Systems, or SCADAS, which would be the target of a cyber attack.
“It seems unlikely that a single virus could be used to attack all of these different systems simultaneously,” Pry said.
He pointed out that there has not been a single documented case of even a local blackout being caused by a cyber attack.
“If it was so easy to do, it seems that a cyber-induced blackout should have happened somewhere by now,” Pry said. “Cyber attacks have been successful stealing information and causing problems for individual businesses, like ARAMCO (in Saudi Arabia) and now Sony, not attacking entire national infrastructures.”
Pry said it’s why information warfare, or cyber warfare, doctrine for Russia, China, Iran and North Korea is not limited to computer bugs and hacking.
“Their doctrine, operational planning and exercises envision cyber warfare as a combined arms operation that also includes physical sabotage and even nuclear EMP attack,” he said.
“If you are North Korea and are going to destroy a superpower like the United States with cyber warfare, you are going to throw in the kitchen sink,” he said.
Pry said North Korea underscored this approach in 2013 during the nuclear crisis it created and simulated an all-out cyber warfare operation against the U.S., including nuclear EMP attack launched by satellite and from a ship.
“None of this is to denigrate the cyber threat from computer viruses and hacking,” Pry said. “Russia and China or someone may already have developed the cyber equivalent of the atomic bomb. The United States needs to be prepared for everything.”
Underscoring Pry’s concerns about China’s cyber warfare capabilities, National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers last week told Congress that China indeed could shut down the U.S.
Rogers said China, along with “one or two” other countries, had the capability to launch a cyber-attack that could shut down the electric grid system in parts of the U.S.
With the U.S. remaining on the defensive, it is a “losing strategy,” Rogers said.
He said the cyber threat was “so real,” the first admission by a top cyber official such as Rogers confirmed that prospect publicly.
He said that U.S. adversaries constantly are doing electronic “reconnaissance” looking for ways to attack industrial control systems that automatically operate pipelines, chemical facilities, water treatment plants and other SCADA-operated facilities.
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