Global efforts needed to protect core infrastructure from cyber-attacks

A cyber-attack temporarily disrupted the operation of one of the largest oil pipelines in the United States. To what extent can a government build a protection system against attacks on private companies? This is a serious issue for Japan as well.

The target was the about 9,000-kilometer pipeline linking the oil-producing South to the Northeast, supplying 45% of the fuel demand for the East Coast.

The operating company detected a ransomware attack to its internal computer system and shut down the system that manages pipeline flow volume and pressure for about five days to prevent further damage from spreading.

Operation has since resumed, but has yet to return to normal. Gasoline prices have soared and there have been lines of cars waiting to refuel. This can be said to indicate how much damage the economy and society will suffer when infrastructure fails to function.

The U.S. government has determined that cybercrime group DarkSide was involved. The group’s modus operandi is to infiltrate a targeted large company with ransomware that encrypts data, demanding a ransom in exchange for restoring access to the data. The group sometimes threatens to release stolen information online.

The operating company has not provided details of the damage and has not said whether it paid the ransom in this incident. It is undeniable that the measures taken by the company were lax in terms allowing its system to be susceptible to ransomware that had already been circulating. It seems that the protection system in place was not on par with the importance of the facility.

U.S. President Joe Biden pointed out that DarkSide is operating with Russia as its base, emphasizing that the Russian government has some responsibility for the incident. Moscow has denied any involvement in the cyber-attack, but if it continues to turn its back on cracking down on this type of crime, it will inevitably face criticism.

Most of the critical infrastructure in the United States, including pipelines, power plants and electric power grids, is run by private companies. The more personnel reductions and digitization of management and monitoring systems progress, the greater the opportunities for cyber-attacks to take advantage of the systems. There may be a limit to any protection system left up to the private sector.

The Biden administration is considering a framework under which the government and infrastructure providers immediately share information on damage and companies are required to meet certain safety standards. This is a manifestation of the government’s awareness that the cyber-attack this time is a serious incident involving national security.

It becomes necessary for companies that have not been affected to respond with a sense of responsibility as they may face such a cyber-attack at anytime. Japan also should promote similar efforts.

Cross-border cyber-attacks have grown worse and damage has been on the rise. Identifying and punishing criminals would be the best way to prevent recurrences.

It is important for the Group of Seven industrialized nations to play a central role in closely exchanging information on criminal groups and strengthening international cooperation in investigations.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 14, 2021.