Computer Attack Shuts Down US Oil Pipeline

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Alpharetta, Georgia —(Map)

A computer attack has forced one of the largest oil pipelines in the United States to shut down. Colonial Pipeline, which provides 45% of the gasoline and other fuels used by the US East Coast, shut down on Friday following the attack.

Colonial Pipeline’s system has 5,500 miles (8,800 kilometers) of pipeline that deliver gas, diesel, and jet fuel from Texas along the East Coast up to New York and New Jersey.

The pipeline was built in the 1960s, and it’s one of the most important oil pipelines in the US. It delivers about 100 million gallons (379 million liters) of fuel a day to all kinds of energy users, including many large airports.

Colonial said on Friday that it “was the victim of a cybersecurity attack“. Later, the company announced that it was a ransomware attack.

In a ransomware attack, the attackers use special software to scramble the files on computers so they can’t be used. The attackers say they will unlock the files if they are paid money – a “ransom”. So far, it’s not clear how much money the attackers are asking for.

Cryptolocker ransomware This message is displayed when an user is infected with the Cryptolocker ransomware. If the user doesn't pay the 'ransom' the user's files are gone. Screen of Cryptolocker via Malwarebytes.

Because of how big and important Colonial Pipeline is, some experts thought the attackers might have been organized by another country. Now, it appears that the attack was made by a criminal group known as “Darkside”.

Some news groups say that before Darkside locked Colonial’s computer files, it stole a lot of information from the company’s computer system. This is common for ransomware criminals, who usually threaten to sell the information if they aren’t paid.

Colonial said that when it learned of the attack, it shut down its entire pipeline. The oil company also hired a computer security company to help with the problem.

Ransomware has become a more and more common problem in recent years. The attack on Colonial has many people worried. It shows that large parts of important US systems can be attacked.

It’s not clear yet if the attackers only locked the company’s computer files, or if they also were able to take control of parts of Colonial’s pipeline.

Colonial is a private company, but because the attack threatens US safety, government security groups are also investigating. The US has had several major cyberattacks in the last year. US President Joe Biden has said that the country must focus on protecting against these kinds of attacks.

So far, the attack and shutdown haven’t affected fuel prices much. That’s because huge amounts of fuel are normally stored in massive storage tanks. But if the pipeline’s shutdown continues, prices could rise.

Colonial says it has begun to re-open some small sections of its pipeline, but that it won’t open the rest of the pipeline until it believes it is “safe to do so”.

Colonial Pipeline Storage tanks outside Birmingham Alabama. Highway in the foreground.

For the US government – and other companies that provide services America relies on – the story won’t end when Colonial is up and running again. The attack is a strong reminder that US computer security needs to improve quickly. In the future, attacks like this are likely to become much more common.


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