Russia and rooftop solar make Australia’s grid a prime target for hackers

Sinister image of hand poised at keyboard for cyber-attack (cybercrime index)
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Australia’s widespread adoption of rooftop solar panels and smart appliances puts our electricity grid at increased risk of cyber attacks, experts say.

With fresh economic sanctions being issued against Moscow, there are heightened fears Russia could take the war into cyberspace as it seeks to retaliate against the West.

Related article: Russian Conti hackers claim CS Energy cyberattack

Two of Australia’s top cybersecurity advisors told ABC News the electricity networks of Russia’s adversaries would be at risk of cyberattack. 

CyberCX chief strategy officer and former cyber security advisor to the federal government Alastair MacGibbon said the risks were growing as the electricity grid became more complex—particularly with the rapid uptake of rooftop solar and smart appliances.

“The more connected you are the more important cyber security is,” MacGibbon said.

“We rely upon those connected devices that make up our society to function to the point now where there would literally be potential loss of life, potential catastrophic, cascading effects on the very functioning of society if we don’t get cybersecurity right.

“That sounds like a sky-is-falling type of statement. But it’s just a reality when our transport, our power, our water, our banking, the way we communicate with each other, literally the way everything functions, relies on a connected device.”

Last year, Queensland electricity generator CS Energy suffered a ransomware attack from criminal Russian hackers—a story which Energy Source & Distribution broke.

Such attacks involve hackers infiltrating a company’s computer systems and threatening to destroy or withhold critical information unless the victims pay a ransom.

Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre chief executive Rachael Falk said the CS Energy attack was a serious incident that could have disabled electricity grid provision throughout Queensland.

“Ransomware is one of the biggest threats we have at the moment to our organisations and we know that particularly electricity and industrial companies are a main target,” Falk said.

“It’s the equivalent of having a tsunami through your business—it’s ruined everything, there is nothing left untouched, it’s devastating.”

She said cyber criminals were becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they deploy ransomware.

“During COVID, we saw a quick spike in mimicking official government emails, say about JobKeeper or JobSeeker. Within hours they had pivoted to mimic, and very convincingly mimic, official government emails with lures … in order to dupe people,” Falk said.

Economic Regulation Authority (ERA) chairman Steve Edwell said the need for increased cyber security spending by electricity firms was “inarguable” given the obvious and elevated risks of attacks.

He said most people would be “gobsmacked” to know how often electricity networks were hit by cyber strikes.

“I’d seriously doubt there’s a board anywhere or a network business in the country that doesn’t rate cyber security among its top risks.

“And the network businesses that I know have been on this for a number of years.

Related article: Cybersecurity report details new groups targeting energy and utilities sector

“Quite apart from that legislation, the cyber risk for electricity network businesses as I see it is a clear and present danger.

“What’s happening now with the energy transformation is really taking the dimension of cyber risk to another level.

“Anyone who has any business conducted electronically—and let’s face it, just about every modern business does—is subject to cyber-attack.”

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