MELISSA BLOCK, host:
I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
I'm Michele Norris. And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
BLOCK: Electricity Grid in U.S. Penetrated by Spies, that's the provocative headline of a front page story in today's Wall Street Journal. According to the report, cyber-spies from China, Russia and other countries have hacked into the computer systems that control the electrical grid and have left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system.
The Wall Street Journal story was written by intelligence correspondent Siobhan Gorman, who joins us now. And why don't you describe what you learned from the unnamed national security officials whom you cite in your story?
Ms. SIOBHAN GORMAN (Intelligence Correspondent, The Wall Street Journal): Yes. Well, this is something that intelligence officials have become increasingly concerned about because they have seen evidence that hackers, through the Internet, find weaknesses in these electronic systems that are connected to the electrical control systems and penetrate those so that they can basically do surveillance, figure out what controls do what, what turns your power on and off, what controls power flow.
And they've also left behind these little tools, as you mentioned, that would then allow remote access later on down the line, say, if there's some sort of crisis with China over Taiwan, that they might be able to use that then as some sort of leverage, either destroying portions of the electrical infrastructure, controlling portions of the electrical infrastructure or just using it as extortion, you know, letting U.S. officials know, hey, we could do this if we wanted to. And that's why you should accede to our demands.
BLOCK: Spokesmen from both the Russian and Chinese embassies here emphatically deny this.
Ms. GORMAN: (unintelligible)
BLOCK: The Chinese spokesman says that China has laws barring any practice like this. He said people with a Cold War mentality are indulged in fabricating the sheer lies of the so-called cyber-spies in China. They say this is just flat wrong.
Ms. GORMAN: That is what they say. The U.S. intelligence officials that I've spoken with say that that's actually not true at all and that they, you know, when they go back, they do forensics basically on the information that is being stolen. All the surveillance that's being done then gets shipped back to networks and computers - and those appear to lead to China.
Now, there's a lot of murkiness in the land of the Internet. And so what they call the attribution problem is something that is pervasive across the board when you're dealing with cyber security matters. And so it's very hard to pinpoint it to a particular individual in any of these countries.
So, you know, there's certainly some truth to these statements that the embassy officials are saying. However, you know, there are some very tech savvy people within the intelligence community, and they are still quite convinced that at some level folks in Russia and China are behind this.
BLOCK: How do you assess the genuineness of this threat that you're hearing about? I mean, there would be a lot of vested interests here, people who would want money for cyber security programs, who would want to possibly inflate the threat beyond what it really is.
Ms. GORMAN: That is always possible. That's possible with almost any program in government, particularly when you're facing budget declines. I don't get that sense in terms of the people who I spoke with about this. These were people who, you know, sources had mentioned it to me, and I went back and kind of started talking with other people who I knew who I thought might know about this. So this wasn't something where people came to me, and they were saying, you know, this is a real crisis. You really have to write about it. It was more something that I heard about and pursued.
BLOCK: You're writing in your story about threats to the electrical grid, but are there similar fears about any other realm of the infrastructure in this country?
Ms. GORMAN: Very much so. I was speaking with somebody at the Department of Homeland Security who followed these matters quite closely who said that it was his impression, having studied this, that most sectors of the U.S. infrastructure have been penetrated in some form or another. Because if you think about it, the electrical grid touches almost every other key form of infrastructure in order for them to run.
And all of these systems are connected in some form or another by computer networks. I mean, some cyber security experts have described cyberspace as a bit of an aquatic environment. So once you get in one part of the ocean, it's not that hard to swim to the other side.
BLOCK: Siobhan Gorman covers intelligence for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for coming in.
Ms. GORMAN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.