Clavister Blog Staff

Securing critical infrastructure against … squirrels

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Sophisticated cybercriminals and nation-state attackers.  Out-of-date hardware and software.  Weaponized malware.  Disgruntled ex-employees. Careless current employees.  We’re all familiar with some of the potential cyber-risks to critical infrastructure and networks.  But what about squirrels?

Yes, squirrels. Recent research has shown that more than 1700 power cuts affecting nearly 5 million people since 2013 were directly attributable to animals damaging power lines, leading to outages.  Squirrels came top of the list, responsible for an impressive 879 of these ‘attacks’ by gnawing through electricity cabling around facilities.  The researcher behind the project said he started tracking these issues in an attempt to dispel some of the hype around cyberattacks made by individuals “at high levels in government and industry.”

The message here isn’t that we need better pest control, but rather, that a significant number of service outages and system downtime are actually due to unexpected sources. Even when the source of an attack seems crystal clear from the outset, new information often comes to light that quickly changes the picture. We recently blogged about a supposed cyberattack by Russian agents who had supposedly attacked the US power grid – later revealed to be a simple case of an employee logging on to check their email and connecting to a potentially suspicious IP address.

Attacks on power lines by animals are, like extreme weather conditions and earthquakes, a form of natural ‘disaster’ that can have severe repercussions on business continuity but are extremely difficult to predict.  And this does put infrastructure outages into perspective:  they can be caused by random outlier events, as well as by targeted attacks.

However, we should not be complacent about the very real risks of attacks happening.  As we’ve covered before, the computer systems used to run and manage critical infrastructure in many organizations often lack protection, and contain surprisingly basic vulnerabilities – so they need protection.  The form that this protection should take has been described in detail by the SANS Institute in its report, The Industrial Control System Cyber Kill Chain.

With the appropriate security measures, backed by centralized visibility and management, critical infrastructure can be protected against emerging cyber threats.  And even if there’s an occasional outage caused by a suicidal squirrel nibbling a power cable, it’s preferable to a malicious incident involving human attackers.


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