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Pacemakers, Cars, Energy Grids: The Tech That Should Not Be Hackable, Is

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While laptops and Web services remain the most popular targets for cyber attacks, hackers are gradually turning to life-critical devices and systems.

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Electricity Grid

Is it possible for hackers to cut the power feed to a city, region, or nation? Unfortunately, this may soon become a reality. In fact, the US electrical grid had been already penetrated by foreign spies, according to reports made public in 2009.

Fresher assessments are also far from optimistic.

"If they could gain access, hackers could manipulate SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems to disrupt the flow of electricity, transmit erroneous signals to operators, block the flow of vital information, or disable protective systems," says a joint report by US governmental bodies on the state of the US power networks, published in November 2012.

The report's authors point out that while cyber attacks might not be as devastating as physical interventions, cyber intrusions could magnify physical damage, causing longer outages.


Power Lines Tower. Photo: Pixabay.

The government appears to be well aware of the threats and possible implications in this field. In early 2012, the NSA commander, General Keith Alexander, reportedly warned that in a year or two the infamous hacking group Anonymous would be able to launch a cyber attack on the US power infrastructure, resulting in "limited outage."

The Congressional power grid safety survey published in May 2013 noted, "The electric grid is the target of numerous and daily cyber attacks," with a number of providers reporting numerous attempts to hack them. However, none confirmed damage to their equipment as the result of the attacks. That is why some critics called the report overblown, published only to rekindle the argument for big spending on cyber security.

Everyday Hacks

Hackable systems are everywhere. Remember the public billboard hacked to display porn in 2010? The prison computer system hacked by a prisoner in 2011? Or the US emergency alert system in Montana that was taken over by hackers who warned citizens of a zombie attack in 2013?

Although we obviously wish that personal computers, websites, ATMs, and other financial service systems weren't hacked on a daily basis, unfortunately, they still are and will probably continue to be for the near future. National security interests aside, we have managed to live with hacks into our data and information systems. The government has even brought some perpetrators to justice.

Truth be told, the more serious hack attacks are probably not disclosed to the public because of the classified or sensitive nature of the breaches. If military drones can be hijacked the way that civilian models can be, you probably wouldn't want to know about it.

Fortunately for us, most attempts to hack life-critical systems remain lab experiments, single case studies, or proof-of-concept affairs. They are for our benefit, too; the more people are aware of potential threats, the more companies work on patching vulnerabilities, and the more money invested in making these critical systems secure by design, the better.
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