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Was Russian hacking of Ukraine's power grid a test run for U.S. attack?

Russia's power grid attacks
How Russia tested power grid attacks in Ukraine 05:47

In its July cover story, Wired magazine takes an in-depth look at a years-long string of cyberattacks in Ukraine that could have global implications. It has undermined every sector including the media, military, politics and even people's homes.

Andy Greenberg, who reported the story, and Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson joined "CBS This Morning" to discuss the findings and what the implications could be for the United States.

The Russian attacks on Ukraine's power grid were extensive. In 2015, electricity was cut to nearly a quarter-million Ukrainians, and about a year later a transmission station was taken down, revealing the attacks were becoming more sophisticated.  

"There's a disturbing progression happening," Greenberg said.  

The reason, according to Greenberg, was Russia's desire to destabilize Ukraine. What he finds even more worrisome, though, is that the Russians seem to be using Ukraine as a place to test-run their methods. 

"The really disturbing thing is that they're also using Ukraine as a testing ground for attacks that they're honing to possibly use against Western Europe or the United States in the future," Greenberg said.

Thompson said they saw the hacks happening and decided to send Greenberg on a reporting trip to Ukraine, knowing it would likely be a scary story. But what he found was even worse.

Can cyber-hackers shut down the power grid? 09:26

"Andy goes to the Ukraine, he reports it. And it's actually scarier than we thought because it turns out they're not only doing all these terrible things — they're not only shutting down the power grid, they're not only shutting down the railway stations. It looks like they're kind of planning to come after us," Thompson said. 

According to Greenberg, U.S. power grids are more secure than Ukraine's, but the U.S. does have another type of vulnerability. 

"It's probably harder to take down our grid, but it might be easier to keep it down for a longer period of time," Greenberg said. 

Thompson said the aim of the Wired article is to help make the case for what the U.S. should be paying close attention to. Greenberg pointed out that Russia isn't the only one with the capabilities to carry out such attacks, but it might be the most likely. 

"All of the most powerful nations in the world — U.S., Russia, China — probably have the ability to take down each other's power grids and infrastructure, but the scary thing is that Russia is brazen enough to actually do these things," Greenberg said. "There's a kind of boldness in the Putin regime that should scare everyone."

In the article, Greenberg makes the argument that despite the extent of the Ukraine attacks, Russia's capabilities could have allowed them to do even more damage. 

"In the second of these two power grid attacks, they only took the power down for one hour but they used an incredibly sophisticated, new piece of malicious software that automated the whole attack," Greenberg explained. What does that mean? "They have a reusable, adaptable weapon that they're going to want to use again," he said. 

Asked whether the responsibility for addressing the threat falls more to the government or the private sector, Thompson said it requires the cooperation of both. "If you work at a power grid you can't just rely on the federal government."

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