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Energy sector cyberattacks jumped in 2012. Were utilities prepared?

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(Read caption) Members of the hacktivist group 'Anonymous' take part in a protest in central Brussels, in this January 2012 photo.

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Cyberattackers zeroed in on computer systems run by power grid operators and natural gas pipeline companies last year, paying less attention to infiltrating networks belonging to water, chemical, and nuclear facilities, a new federal report shows.

Energy companies were clearly in the cyber bullseye in 2012, targeted in 41 percent of the malicious software attack cases reported to a special Department of Homeland Security (DHS) team that responds to cyberattacks on industrial computer networks.

The overall number of attacks remained flat at 198 incidents for the year, the same as 2011. But energy sector companies reported 82 cyberattacks last year, a sharp increase over the 31 cases reported in 2011, according to a report released last week by DHS's Industrial Control System-Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT).

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Among those energy-sector cyberattack cases, 23 involved oil and natural gas companies hit by a persistent months-long targeted spear-phishing campaign first reported by the Monitor in May. Also on the upswing were attacks on commercial manufacturing facilities that leaped to 19 last year from 2 in 2011.

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