By Jordan Robertson
AP Technology Writer
San Francisco — More than half of the operators of power plants and other “critical infrastructure” have had their computer networks infiltrated by sophisticated adversaries, according to a new study. In many cases, foreign governments are suspected.
The findings come in a survey released Thursday that offers a rare public look at the damage computer criminals can do to vital institutions such as power grids, water and sewage systems and oil and gas companies. Manipulating the computer systems can cause power outages, floods, sewage spills and oil leaks.
The survey is based on interviews in September with 600 executives and technology managers from infrastructure operators in 14 countries. It was prepared by McAfee Inc., which makes security software, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which analyzed the data.
In the new report, 54 percent of respondents acknowledged that they had been hit by “stealthy infiltration” of their networks. In such break-ins, criminals can plant malicious software to steal files, spy on e-mails and do even scarier things such as remotely controlling equipment inside a utility.
The same percentage of respondents also said they have experienced large-scale “denial-of-service” attacks, in which a computer network is knocked out of service because of it is flooded with bogus Internet traffic.
An even higher proportion of respondents — 59 percent — said they believed that representatives of foreign governments were involved in the attacks and others on critical infrastructure in their countries.
Perhaps even more alarming: Many intruders have apparently done something harmful with the access they’ve stolen.
Sixty-five percent of the respondents that had experienced large-scale denial of service attacks said the incidents had at least some effect on their operations, from minor service interruptions to sustained damage and critical breakdowns.
Identifying the culprits in such attacks can be next to impossible, because computer attacks are typically routed through multiple layers of infected computers to disguise the source.