Natural disasters can set the stage for cyberattacks

“Cyber actors are looking for this opportunity. They see vulnerability,” said Indiana’s cybersecurity program director

Nashville tornado aftermath

Nashville and other parts of Tennessee were struck by tornadoes last year that caused severe damage and left hundreds homeless. Cybersecurity experts warn that hackers could take advantage of natural disasters to disrupt state and local government infrastructure.

DroneBase via The Associated Press

Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
By Jenni Bergal

An earthquake strikes a city in Indiana, causing chaos and destruction, sending emergency managers and first responders scrambling. Then the water system goes down, and everyone figures it’s because of the natural disaster.

But it isn’t. It’s a ransomware attack by cybercriminals, who are taking advantage of the disruption to infiltrate the water system’s network.

The incident isn’t real, but it is a scenario played out as part of a three-day, full-scale cybersecurity drill in Indiana in August attended by more than 500 people, including Indiana National Guard members, first responders, health care providers and state, local and federal officials.

“All hands are on deck during a natural disaster. Now something else happens on top of a bad situation. That makes everything worse,” said Chetrice Mosley-Romero, Indiana’s cybersecurity program director, who helped plan the exercise. “Cyber actors are looking for this opportunity. They see vulnerability.”

Cybercriminals, who are becoming increasingly sophisticated, could take advantage of natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes to wreak havoc on critical infrastructure, experts say, including transportation, emergency response, water and sewer systems and hospitals.

That’s why Indiana and some other state and local governments are trying to prepare by holding drills or creating preparedness plans.

Just this year, the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a federally funded group that helps state and local governments prevent and respond to digital threats, has been involved in 10 virtual exercises. Half of those included discussions about how to plan for the dual impact of a cyberattack and a natural disaster, said Randy Rose, senior director of cyber threat intelligence. Two more sessions are planned this year.

“We almost always see some spike in cyberattack attempts impacted by any major event, whether it’s natural disaster or something else,” Rose said. “It’s an easier way for threat actors to gain a foothold. They take advantage of a system in a weakened state.”

Rose wouldn’t identify the state and local governments involved in the exercises, which are sponsored by the federal government through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and conducted in coordination with his agency and state and local officials. Part of the exercise typically is for governments to prepare for a coordinated cyberattack shortly after a major disaster.

“It’s not good enough to say we have a policy in place. It needs to be updated on a regular basis,” Rose said. “You have to make sure it works. You need to know who to call, who has what part to play, who is responsible for what.”

In Houston, the city and the U.S. Army Cyber Institute conducted a three-day drill in July 2018 that simulated a cyberattack during a hurricane. The previous year, Category 4 Hurricane Harvey had struck the Houston metro area, bringing the worst flooding in its history and forcing thousands to abandon their homes.

The drill, which focused on city services such as water, health care, the port and emergency response, brought together participants from local, state and federal agencies, some of whom had never interacted with each other, said Jack Hanagriff, critical infrastructure protection coordinator for the mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

As a result of the drill, Houston has conducted several regional training programs with local governments focused on a natural disaster overlapping with a cyberattack, Hanagriff said.

“We took a lot of what we learned [during the drill], such as needing better communication and better cooperation,” he said. “They need to understand the gaps and get their people trained. And a lot of it is just getting people to trust each other so they can start talking.”

Domino Effects

Security experts say they’re not aware of any major cyberattack against a state or local government during a natural disaster, but that it’s only a matter of time.

And if a hacker launches a disruption to coincide with a natural disaster, that could greatly hamper first responders, hospitals, utilities and government agencies, according to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

It could create a domino effect such as loss of electrical power, water, telecommunications and other infrastructure.

“In a time of already high pressure, people have to make a lot of decisions quickly. You’re dealing with multiple stress points,” said Doug Howard, CEO of Pondurance, an Indianapolis-based cybersecurity company that was one of the major participants in the Indiana drill.

“The main message was not so much the scenario and what we did,” Howard said. “It was that the state was leaning forward, saying, ‘What would we do?’”

Howard said his company’s data shows that threats go up when a natural disaster approaches or hits an area.

“Should states be preparing for this? Absolutely,” said Dan Lohrmann, chief security officer for Security Mentor, a national cybersecurity training firm that works with states. “There’s an assumption that a blended attack like this will happen.”

And with climate change causing more frequent natural disasters, Lohrmann added, cyberattacks could become more likely.

“If they can disable communications in the middle of a major hurricane or fire or flood or tornado, state police can’t talk to each other. It’s vitally important to have systems secure before that happens. They have to plan for it.”

In North Carolina, a state joint cybersecurity task force is capable of handling an attack during a natural disaster, said Rob Main, the interim state chief risk officer.

But Main said doing a hands-on intensive drill focused just on that topic, such as the ones in Indiana and Houston, makes sense and would be beneficial for every state.

Indiana Drill

The August drill in Indiana took place at the Indiana National Guard’s 1,000-acre Muscatatuck Urban Training Center. Located in Southern Indiana, the center has its own mockup city, which includes more than 190 structures, nearly 2 miles of subterranean tunnels, airspace, a reservoir and more than 9 miles of roads. It can simulate real-life attacks against communications, energy, water and other critical infrastructure.

Indiana’s Mosley-Romero said the dual cyber-natural disaster exercise was meant to educate and improve communications among various agencies and close any gaps in service and response.

“It was good for firefighters and emergency responders to see the effects of something they don’t necessarily deal with,” she said. “From the cyber end, we need continued education with first responders and to do a better job making sure that all local emergency managers communicate with the state.”

Mosley-Romero said her agency took the lessons it learned and followed up with a virtual presentation for more than 100 wastewater utilities in the state earlier this month.

“That was the biggest success of the exercise,” she said. “Being able to pass that knowledge on.”

Learn more: On-Demand Webinar: The growing threat of ransomware attacks on public safety agencies