Russian hackers are working to penetrate the American electric utility grid, bringing to sharp focus the idea that Putin is not done with interfering in U.S. domestic affairs.
Clear, undeniable evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections through covert means of cyber attacks on political parties and individuals had given wind to speculations that Putin might try and disrupt the midterm elections as well, which are supposed to take later this year. But as several technology company heads and high-ranking intelligence agencies told the New York Times, it appears Russia’s attention is now set on taking control of the U.S. power grid.
Officials familiar with the operations told NYT that far from the belief that Russia would target politicians and state voter registration systems, its focus remains firmly on remotely controlling the U.S. election utility grid. It is unclear what the motivation of such attacks would be, with the most obvious explanation being that Russia would possibly want to unplug electricity in times of conflict — akin to what it did in Ukraine — but even intelligence officers say this might be a bit of a stretch. It could simply be that Russia wants to show the level of covert influence it can exert by being one-step ahead of the United States in cyber attacks instigated by the country’s military.
But whatever the motivation may be, there is little doubt that Russia is actively targeting to implant malware across U.S. electrical systems. The Department of Homeland Security reported last week that Russia’s military intelligence agency had infiltrated the control rooms of power plants across the country, with “hundreds of victims” affected as part of the breach.
Although the White House, under immense pressure after the controversial Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, has maintained recently that it would not tolerate “foreign interference,” the counter-threat has remained largely within the gambit of the idea that Russia would try and interfere in the 2018 midterm elections. But now it appears likely that it is the least of Russia’s aims, perhaps because interfering in 460 separate races would be too tiresome for a foreign player. As of now, Donald Trump has not even acknowledged Russia’s purported attacks on the U.S. power grid, let alone maneuver a method to confront it.
This is not to say that Russia is not a suspect when it comes to undermining the midterms, with Senator Claire McCaskill’s campaign computer systems having already been the subject of one such unsuccessful attack.
“Russia continues to engage in cyberwarfare against our democracy,” McCaskill said in a statement. “While this attack was not successful, it is outrageous that they think they can get away with this. I will not be intimidated.”
But Microsoft, which managed to subvert two reported attacks on American lawmakers with the help of a special court order, contends that Russian cyberattacks on American politicians for the midterms are not as dangerous as once imagined. The far more sinister conclusion is that Russia has changed its focus when it comes to cyberattacks, and that the U.S. power grid is Putin’s next full-blown target.