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Exclusive: Cyberattack leaves natural gas pipelines vulnerable to sabotage

A government report says a cyberattack against 23 natural gas pipeline operators stole crucial information that could compromise security. Experts strongly suspect China's military.

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A yellow underground EnCana natural gas pipeline marker is seen along a road on State Forest Park Land in Kalkaska, Michigan, in 2012.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File

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Cyberspies linked to China’s military targeted nearly two dozen US natural gas pipeline operators over a recent six-month period, stealing information that could be used to sabotage US gas pipelines, according to a restricted US government report and a source familiar with the government investigation.

From December 2011 through June 2012, cyberspies targeted 23 gas pipeline companies with e-mails crafted to deceive key personnel into clicking on malicious links or file attachments that let the attackers slip into company networks, says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report.

The report does not mention China, but the digital signatures of the attacks have been identified by independent cybersecurity researchers as belonging to a particular espionage group recently linked to China’s military.

The confluence of these factors –  along with the sensitive operational and technical details that were stolen – make the cyberbreaches perhaps among the most serious so far, some experts say. The stolen information could give an adversary all the insider knowledge necessary to blow up not just a few compressor stations but perhaps many of them simultaneously, effectively holding the nation’s gas infrastructure hostage. Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s power grid now relies on natural gas generation.

“This theft of key information is about hearing the footsteps get closer and closer,” says William Rush, a retired scientist formerly with the Gas Technology Institute who chaired the effort to create a cybersecurity standard applicable to the gas pipeline industry.

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