Hacktastrophe: How cyber-attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure could lead to catastrophic property loss

by Zelle LLP

Zelle  LLP

Although cyber-attacks have traditionally implicated more liability-leaning coverages, several attacks in recent years should give property insurers cause for concern going into the future. Hackers have proven they can seize control over governmental and industrial computer systems and manipulate them to cause tangible—and substantial—real-world property damage. Armed with the ability to cause real-world property damage, sophisticated computer criminals will undoubtedly target the systems of critical, and vulnerable, U.S. infrastructure operations, looking to cause catastrophe-level property destruction. They could be successful.
Property damage from cyber-attacks is not only possible, it has already happened.
In 2000, a hacker infiltrated the computers of a wastewater management system in Queensland, Australia. Over the course of two months, the hacker broke into the system 46 times, instructing it to spill hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into rivers, parks, and public areas.
In 2008, hackers used a program known as Stuxnet to access and disrupt the operations of an Iranian nuclear facility being used to enrich uranium. The uranium enrichment process required the operators to precisely control the speed of the centrifuges in order to produce viable uranium. Knowing that precise control over the centrifuges was absolutely critical to the enrichment process, the hackers used Stuxnet to manipulate the speed of the centrifuges, making them spin wildly out of control. At the same time, the hackers made it appear to the facility operators that the centrifuges were operating correctly, even though in reality they were tearing themselves apart. By altering the speed of the centrifuges, the hackers destroyed the operators’ ability to effectively enrich uranium.
In 2014, German officials confirmed that hackers with advanced knowledge of both IT security and industrial processes seized control over a German steel mill, compromising components and systems, rendering the mill unable to shut down a blast furnace in a regulated manner, which resulted in “massive”—though unspecified—damage to the mill.
And in 2015, hackers infiltrated the controls of three regional electric power distribution companies in the Ukraine, shutting down a power grid and impacting more than 225,000 customers. Highly sophisticated, well-trained, well-funded hackers hijacked the credentials of workers at the control center and used those credentials to access the systems that controlled the breakers. In a coordinated attack, the hackers reconfigured the systems, blocking out the operators; turned off power to the grid, plunging customers into the dark; and launched a secondary denial-of-service attack against customer call centers, preventing customers from reporting the power outage. Although the power wasn’t out for long—between one and six hours—the control centers weren’t fully operational for months after the attack.
U.S. infrastructure is vulnerable to attack.
The Department of Homeland Security lists 16 critical infrastructure sectors “whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” Indeed, cyber-attacks on these sectors—which include dams, energy companies, chemical facilities, nuclear facilities, and water and wastewater facilities—could be catastrophic.
It is impossible to eliminate the threat hackers pose when a system is connected to the internet. (Even when a system is “air gapped” (having no direct connection to the internet) safety from hackers, is still not assured.) Protecting these facilities is critically important, since many of them are particularly susceptible to cyber-attacks. Over the past 25 years, hundreds of thousands of old analog control systems in these facilities have been replaced with digital systems connected to the internet. Any device that is computer-controlled and connected to the internet is vulnerable to hacking.
Not only are these systems vulnerable because of their internet connectivity, but many of these systems were built without cyber security in mind. Even where security measures, such as software firewalls, are used, the software can be misconfigured or circumvented by human error, allowing hackers access.
These concerns aren’t overblown. Indeed, hackers have already targeted and accessed such systems in the U.S. Such hacks often require little more than Google searches and default passwords to succeed. Indeed, in 2013, Iranian hackers were able to access systems into the Bowman Avenue Dam in Rye Brook, N.Y. using nothing more than a simple, legal search engine that surfs for and identifies unguarded control systems online. Although hackers have not yet caused catastrophic property damage in the U.S., efforts to accomplish precisely that are clearly ongoing by various actors.
Cyber-attacks may lead to catastrophic property loss.
It’s not hard to imagine the type of catastrophic property loss that could occur if hackers effectively took control over critical infrastructure. In the real world example of the Iranian hackers who broke into the control systems of the dam in New York, the hackers could have caused a flood by manipulating the dam, damaging or destroying homes in the area.
Attacks on industrial, nuclear, or chemical facilities—similar to those on the Iranian nuclear facility and German steel mill noted above—could cause unsafe conditions that lead to a chemical spill or explosion that, in turn, leads to large scale property loss. Similarly, an attack on a railway company could cause a train carrying explosives or hazardous or combustible materials to derail, causing substantial damage to property. Indeed, there are any number of scenarios where hackers could cause catastrophic property loss by seizing control over vulnerable infrastructure.
The takeaway is this: Insurers covering the risk of property loss from cyber-attacks should be aware that the risk of loss is very real given the vulnerabilities in critical U.S. infrastructure and the increasing sophistication of cyber criminals and that the scope of property loss from a well-coordinated attack could be akin to traditional catastrophes.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Zelle LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Zelle  LLP

Zelle LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.