Cyber attack shuts down US fuel pipeline

Stephanie Kelly and Christopher BingAAP
A cyber attack has prompted the shutdown of a major US fuel pipeline network.
Camera IconA cyber attack has prompted the shutdown of a major US fuel pipeline network. Credit: AAP

Top US fuel pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline has shut its entire network, the source of nearly half of the US East Coast's fuel supply, after a cyber attack that industry sources said was caused by ransomware.

The company transports 2.5 million barrels per day of petrol, diesel, jet fuel and other refined products through 5,500 miles (8,850 km) of pipelines linking refiners on the Gulf Coast to the eastern and southern United States.

Colonial shut down systems to contain the threat after learning of the attack on Friday, it said in a statement. That action has temporarily halted operations and affected some of its IT systems, the company said.

While the US government investigation is in its early stages, one former US government official and two industry sources said the hackers are most likely a highly professional cybercriminal group.

Investigators are looking into whether a group dubbed "DarkSide" by the cybersecurity research community is responsible, the former government official said.

DarkSide is known for deploying ransomware and extorting victims, while selectively avoiding targets in post-Soviet states.

The malicious software used in the attack was ransomware, two cybersecurity industry sources familiar with the matter said.

Ransomware is a type of malware that is designed to lock down systems by encrypting data and demanding payment to regain access. The malware has grown in popularity over the last five years.

Colonial has engaged a third-party cybersecurity firm to launch an investigation and contacted law enforcement and other federal agencies, it said.

Cybersecurity company FireEye has been brought in to respond to the attack, the cybersecurity industry sources said. FireEye declined to comment when asked if it was working on the incident.

The US Transportation Security Administration told Reuters it is working with other agencies on the situation.

Colonial did not give further details or say for how long its pipelines would be shut.

"Cybersecurity vulnerabilities have become a systemic issue," said Algirde Pipikaite, cyber strategy lead at the World Economic Forum's Centre for Cybersecurity.

"Unless cybersecurity measures are embedded in a technology's development phase, we are likely to see more frequent attacks on industrial systems like oil and gas pipelines or water treatment plants," Pipikaite added.

Reuters reported earlier on Friday that Colonial had shut its main petrol and distillate lines.

If the system is shut for four or five days, the market could see sporadic outages at fuel terminals that depend on the pipeline for deliveries.

Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the cyber attack was a warning of things to come.

"This is a play that will be run again, and we're not adequately prepared," he said, adding lawmakers should pass an infrastructure plan that hardens sectors against these attacks.

Colonial had previously shut down its gasoline and distillate lines during Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2017. That contributed to tight supplies and petrol price rises in the United States after the hurricane forced many Gulf refineries to shut down.

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