Cyber criminals interested in companies across the state

Hackers pose a growing threat to nearly any network, including the power grid that lets you reliably turn on the lights. Experts say utilities offer an attractive target: operations with money to extort and that simply can’t afford a shutdown.

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June 18, 2021 - 9:26 AM

Hackers pose a growing threat to nearly any network, including the power grid that lets you reliably turn on the lights.

Experts say utilities offer an attractive target: operations with money to extort and that simply can’t afford a shutdown.

Yet the two largest utility companies in Kansas, Evergy and Kansas Gas Service, declined interviews on their cyber defenses. Instead, they issued statements that they take threats seriously. They say they work with experts and maintain ongoing conversations across their industry to ward off attacks.

Still, the danger remains that attacks that shut down the country’s largest fuel pipeline last month and the world’s largest meat processor — attacks overcome only after combined ransom payments topping $15 million — could hit electric companies.

“Any electronic device that is attached to the internet is at risk,” said Phil Kirk, regional director for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Utility companies that provide a service that needs to operate uninterrupted are particularly interesting targets for cyber criminals looking to steal a company’s information and extort them for a ransom.

In response to the latest high-profile attacks, Kansas utilities, large and small, say they’re doing what they can to keep themselves protected.

RANSOMWARE hackers typically tap into a corporate or government system, seize control of its data or even its controls, and demand payment to back off. It’s not a new kind of attack, but has seen a considerable uptick in use in the past few years.

A report from the cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks says that U.S. companies paid about $115,000 in ransomware attack payments in 2019. That increased to more than $310,000 in 2020. The 2020 number includes a $10 million dollar ransom payment from Kansas-based tracking and fitness company Garmin.

Recently, a ransomware attack in May forced Colonial Pipeline to shut down one of its major pipelines leading to gasoline shortages on the East Coast. A Russian-tied hacker group known as DarkSide is linked to the attack that targeted the company’s financial systems. Colonial paid a $4.4 million ransom to get its systems back online.

“It’s our belief that paying ransom only encourages more of that malicious activity,” Kirk said.

The FBI has been able to recover about half of the ransom Colonial paid.

THE TWO largest utility companies in Kansas, Evergy and Kansas Gas Service, said they’re continuing  to train employees on basic cybersecurity defenses. That includes how to avoid clicking on phishing emails, where an attacker tries to get someone to click on a link in an email that actually installs malware on their computer.

“It’s not clear how effective or helpful that is, but we keep trying,” said Josephine Wolff, an assistant professor of cybersecurity policy at Tufts University.

She said keeping a company protected from attacks is difficult, but there are a few things that all of them should be doing.

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