NSA: Anonymous may take down U.S. power grid in two years

NSA reportedly warning D.C. that Anonymous could develop SCADA exploits, cause blackouts

The FBI often seems to treat cybersecurity and the Anonymous hacktivist collective nothing more sinister than an annoyance distracting the bureau from its primary mission of chasing kidnappers, terrorists and child pornographers. When Anonymous annoys the FBI directly, of course, it becomes a dire threat to national security.

(Of the reports on Anonymous from various government agencies, the most serious warnings often turn out to be forgeries coming from Anonymous itself.)

(The most dire warnings about Anonymous often turn out to come from Anonymous itself.)

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been much more even-handed in its treatment of Anonymous – not considering it the devil incarnate, but not pretending it's a bunch of college kids up to harmless hijinks, either.

Right now, however, the NSA is warning top government officials that Anonymous might be capable within two years of creating limited power blackouts by attacking electric utilities, according to a WSJ story this morning.

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, issued the warning in meetings at the White House and other sessions with lawmakers, according to "people familiar with the gatherings," the Journal wrote.

Oddly enough, the threat from Anonymous to shut down the Internet on March 31 by attacking the 13 root DNS servers that tell all traffic on the Internet where to go has raised the profile of Anonymous with NSA and made it look more like an immediate threat.

That's ironic considering the mass of indications that "Operation Global Blackout" is either a hoax or an effort by small factions within Anonymous to press for aggressive attacks more powerful factions don't want to pursue.

Taking a hoax as a serious danger sign?

Making Operation Global Blackout succeed would take a lot of organization, good timing and more refined attacks than Anonymous typically delivers, according to several security experts who scoff at the idea Anonymous could pull off an attack on all 13 DNS servers.

Even if it could, shutting down the Internet would alienate even Anonymous' most devoted fans and cut off Anonymous' own voice, making the protest look simply like a disaster rather than a calculated bit of political theater – Anonymous' preferred method of public communication.

Nothing is certain, of course, or even almost certain.

It's very likely, however, that Operation Global Blackout will never happen.

So far, Anonymous hasn't made any specific threats to attack the U.S. electric power grid or take any utilities offline.

Neither the WSJ story nor other coverage made any mention of the source of the warning or why the NSA thinks Anonymous would put U.S. utilities on its target list even if it were able to succeed in its attacks.

Much more able to pull off an attack would be China and Russia, both of which have long, successful histories of hacking into U.S.-based computer systems, mainly for espionage, not sabotage.

National players that would have the incentive to take out U.S. utilities just for the impact it would have – Iran, North Korea, for example – aren't able to pull off the attack either, the Journal notes.

The odds Anonymous will successfully attack electric utilities and shut off the power seem long. Given two years of lead time (and the poor security on both the data networks and SCADA control systems at most utilities) it's not much of a reach to believe Anonymous could take a few of them down.

Causing blackouts that would be huge problems for lots of those among "the 99%" as Anons and the Occupy movement describe ordinary citizens, is antithetical to Anonymous' general, much more populist approach to both protest and hacking.

That's not to say the little people don't sometimes get hurt in the process of Anonymous' attempts to accomplish other things. Until now, however, that hasn't been the main point.

One definition of the difference between terrorism and violent revolution is that revolutionaries choose instruments of the state as their targets – police, soldiers, government buildings and officials. Terrorists, whose goal is to terrify the populace into pressuring the government for change, attack ordinary people directly – the more ordinary and helpless the victims, the better targets they make from a terrorist's perspective.

According to that POV, Anonymous are not terrorists; they attack the financial, political and technical infrastructures that are the actual instruments those in power use to exercise that power.

The NSA doesn't have any firm reason to think Anonymous would attack the power grid. Its analysts just think Anonymous is turning in a more sinister direction, using Operation Global Blackout, apparently, as an example of the change. That reasoning – perfectly circular though it is to reach a conclusion based on misinterpreted evidence that seems most likely only in light of the conclusion someone reached because of it – seems tenuous.

It wouldn't be surprising if other players did – especially Iran.

Some factions within Anonymous might give utilities a try as well, for lulz if not with a solid political goal in mind.

But assuming Anonymous as a whole intends to attack and shut down the power grid just to make a point? Unless there's a reason that's actually valid to make anyone reasonably objective think it's true, I have serious doubts the Anonymi have causing major blackouts on their agendas, let alone on the list of confirmed well supported Operations.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.  

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