By Morgan Montalvo
Just a few months ago, fears that an electromagnetic pulse from a North Korean nuclear missile detonated high above the continental United States might shut down the U.S. electric power grid set emergency planners scurrying to develop effective countermeasures.
Now, word comes from the Department of Homeland Security that hackers - possibly from Russia - have been infiltrating America's electric power company computers for more than two years, and may have scavenged enough information to access online "kill switches" that control electricity across the three major U.S power grids.
Texas Congressman Will Hurd tells News Radio 1200 WOAI this kind of hacking, if confirmed as originating in Russia, is nothing new.
"What's happening in the United States when it comes to our energy independence is a direct threat, and it's an existential threat, to the Russians," Hurd tells News Radio 1200 WOAI.
The endgame, Hurd says, could include threats to U.S. offers to supply Europe with petroleum energy, thereby positioning Russia as a closer and reliable source.
Discovery of the infiltratrion has increased cooperation between U.S. intelligence agencies and power companies, with government and corporate computer experts sharing information to develop defenses and establish a series of employee best practices, says Hurd, who has issued repeated warnings about the need to "harden" utilities against online threats.
Hurd says while international convention recognizes a direct attack on a country's utilities an act of war, there is no agreement on the level of a government's response to hacking and illegal online surveillance.
"There needs to be a conversation on what should the appropriate response be," he says, "because often times when it comes to a hack or a cyber-attack, the response doesn't have to necessarily be in the digital realm."
Responses, Hurd says, could include economic sanctions or the indictment of specific, identifiable suspects, such as happened with the recent naming of a dozen Russians for their alleged roles in hacking computers used by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
U.S. Government officials say the hacks began in the Spring of 2016, and involved looking for computer program gaps known as "back doors" to corporate networks that maintain power deliver to customers.
By next using sophisticated "spear-pfishing" techniques, the hackers fooled employees into sharing passwords and other sensitive information. The hackers then accessed and mined control network data by using employee accounts.
DHS officials say it's probable that hackers are still trying to infiltrate U.S. energy grid networks.