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Computer Security: What do accelerators and pipelines have in common?

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Ransomware attacks against enterprises (“Blackmailing Enterprises: You are Patient Zero”) and academia (“Blackmailing Academia: Back to pen and paper(?)”) are not a new phenomenon, and they are a lucrative business for those who couldn’t care less about laws, ethics or getting caught. Just recently, a major US fuel pipeline was hit by a ransomware attack.

In this particular attack, the office systems of Colonial Pipeline were successfully infiltrated and the attackers tried to extort at least 100 GB of data. “Extortion” is the next level of ransomware attacks: instead of “just” encrypting the data and asking for money in exchange for the decryption key, the attackers threaten to publish that (presumably confidential or personal) data unless the victim pays a ransom.

What happened to Colonial Pipeline is not unique, new or surprising. Like any other enterprise, university or organisation, they were already under attack before this incident. The attackers eventually succeeded because their hope to gain big bucks gave them enough persistence, drive and motivation to break through. Colonial Pipeline is now in the delicate situation of having to decide whether or not to pay out. Whatever their decision, major damage has already been done to the East Coast’s economy.

While the energy transferred through their pipelines is much lower than through those of CERN*, the similarities cannot be ignored: CERN also runs a vast office network that is interconnected with the operating systems (Colonial Pipeline immediately disconnected the latter once they became aware of the attack). And while the attackers in this particular case stated on their webpage “Based on our principles, we will not attack […] education [and] non-profit organizations”, other gangs might target CERN.

This is why CERN is currently:

Even so, we are counting on you to take the following actions to help protect CERN’s assets, resources, services and systems:

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* Colonial Pipeline transfers about 2.5 million barrels per day or less than half a litre per turn in the LHC. Ignoring the kinetic energy of the crude oil and considering only its genuine energy density of 41.898 MJ/kg, this corresponds to 16 MJ per turn compared to 300 MJ stored in one LHC beam.

Do you want to learn more about computer security incidents and issues at CERN? Follow our Monthly Report. For further information, questions or help, check our website or contact us at Computer.Security@cern.ch.