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Russian hacks into Ukraine power grids a sign of things to come for U.S.?

Russian hacking to influence the election has dominated the news. But CBS News has also noticed a hacking attack that could be a future means to the U.S. Last weekend, parts of the Ukrainian capitol Kiev went dark. It appears Russia has figured out how to crash a power grid with a click. 

Last December, a similar attack occurred when nearly a quarter of a million people lost power in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine when it was targeted by a suspected Russian attack.  

Vasyl Pemchuk is the electric control center manager, and said that when hackers took over their computers, all his workers could do was film it with their cell phones.

“It was illogical and chaotic,” he said. “It seemed like something in a Hollywood movie.”

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Vasyl Pemchuk in the control center that was hacked

CBS News

The hackers sent emails with infected attachments to power company employees, stealing their login credentials and then taking control of the grid’s systems to cut the circuit breakers at nearly 60 substations.

The suspected motive for the attack is the war in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are fighting against Ukrainian government forces.

But hackers could launch a similar attack in the U.S.

“We can’t just look at the Ukraine attack and go ‘oh we’re safe against that attack,’” said Rob Lee, a former cyberwarfare operations officer in the U.S. military, investigated the Ukraine attack.

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Rob Lee

CBS News

“Even if we just lose a portion, right? If we have New York City or Washington D.C. go down for a day, two days, a week, what does life look like at that point?” he said.

He said that some U.S. electric utilities have weaker security than Ukraine, and the malicious software the hackers used has already been detected in the U.S.

“It’s very concerning that these same actors using similar capabilities and tradecraft are preparing and are getting access to these business networks, getting access to portions of the power grid,” he said.

In Ukraine, they restarted the power in just hours. But an attack in the U.S. could leave people without electricity for days, or even weeks, according to experts. Because, ironically, America’s advanced, automated grid would be much harder to fix.