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Canada says 'Anonymous' may attack energy company computers

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By Greg Quinn
Bloomberg News
Published:
OTTAWA, Canada -- Canadian security agencies have warned energy companies such as Imperial Oil that their computers may be attacked by the Anonymous hacker group because of the industry's work developing Alberta's oil sands, government documents show.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, public safety department and Communications Security Establishment Canada all investigated threats against the industry between the start of 2011 and mid-March, according to documents obtained this month by Bloomberg News under freedom of information laws. The RCMP conducted a threat assessment after the hacker group that calls itself Anonymous issued a press release in July 2011 accusing oil-sands companies of being greedy and harming the environment.
"The Canadian law enforcement and security intelligence community have noted a growing radicalized environmentalist faction who is opposed to Canada's energy sector," the RCMP's assessment said. "Corporate security officers should verify that security testing has been performed on public facing web servers and mail servers."
The hackers are attracted to high-profile projects such as TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship Alberta crude to the U.S., said Thomas Dean, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Queen's University.
"It's the high profile targets that tend to get hit," Dean said from Kingston, Ontario, where he researches software security. The chance of an attack rests on whether the industry makes new international headlines, he said.
President Obama rejected TransCanada's initial application to build the $7.6 billion Keystone pipeline in January after Nebraska officials said it threatened the state's water. The company re-applied with an altered route for the link between Alberta producers and U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
"Threats to Canada's critical infrastructure are real and will persist," Tahera Mufti, spokeswoman with the government's Canadian Security Intelligence Service, wrote in an e-mailed comment on the reports.
Anonymous has infiltrated the computer systems of Toronto's police, Bank of America, and the Australian and Syrian governments, according to the 44 pages of documents released by Canada's foreign affairs department. The group uses online discussions instead of formal leadership to organize actions and focuses on embarrassing prominent companies, Dean said.
Canada's oil reserves are the world's third largest after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, most of which in bitumen deposits in Alberta. Environmental groups say extraction of the tar-like bitumen from sand exacerbates global warming and threatens wildlife. Energy exports made up about 23 percent of Canada's merchandise shipments in June, according to Statistics Canada data. Crude output from Canada is forecast to more than double to 6.2 million barrels a day by 2030, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, known as CAPP.
"Within this most recent threat, Anonymous could target or be targeting the IT infrastructures" of companies including BP Plc, Canadian Oil Sands, Suncor Energy and Nexen, the RCMP said in the 2011 report.
The government documents didn't show evidence of plans for a specific attack and the RCMP said in the report there's no indication Anonymous intends to cause "material damage."
"We were made aware of the issue by various third-parties, including the government, and we also became aware of the issue via our own monitoring systems," said Patti Lewis, spokeswoman for Calgary-based Nexen. "We have processes in place to mitigate business impacts that IT security threats may create."
Siren Fisekci, a spokeswoman for Canadian Oil Sands, the largest owner of Canada's biggest oil-sands project, declined to comment, as did Scott Dean of BP. Sneh Seetal of Suncor didn't return e-mails and a phone call seeking comment. TransCanada didn't immediately respond to phone calls and e- mails on the issue.
CAPP President David Collyer met April 12 with the head of Canada's spy service, known as CSIS, federal lobbying records show. That was "part of ongoing/regular meetings with CSIS to ensure secure networks and infrastructure," Travis Davies, spokesman for the industry group, wrote in a May 11 e-mail.
The Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, which brings together staff from various government agencies, produced a July 2011 memo about the risks posed by Anonymous to Alberta's oil- sands, which was distributed to "stakeholders," according to a separate set of documents released by the spy agency under freedom of information law.
"Anonymous has demonstrated that it can effectively mount cyber attacks with the potential to disrupt corporate or government operations," the report said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has touted Canada as a secure energy superpower and a major supplier of energy to the U.S. through oil, natural gas and electricity shipments. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote an open letter in January criticizing "environmental and other radical groups" that "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda."
Jessica Slack, a spokeswoman with Public Safety Canada, declined to comment on any specific threat when asked about Anonymous and the energy industry. The department's minister Vic Toews was threatened by the group in a February video over proposed legislation that would increase the police's powers to monitor people's activities on the Internet.
Anonymous doesn't have formal leadership or spokesmen, and often works by calling hackers to join causes that are chosen through online polls, according to a government report.
Their attacks focus on overloading websites until they shut down, posting embarrassing messages on an organization's website and stealing sensitive information, Dean said. Their capacity to attack depends on if an idea gains enough popularity for a large group of people to join together, he said.
"The biggest mistake to make with Anonymous is to think they are some kind of single group with a cohesive message," Dean said.
The RCMP shares some of its reports with companies and holds regular security discussions with industry groups, Cpl. David Falls wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. He declined to comment on the specific threat posed by Anonymous.
Pius Rolheiser, a spokesman for Imperial, also declined to comment on any specific threat. The Calgary-based company, which is 70 percent owned by Exxon Mobil, operates the Cold Lake oil-sands project, has a stake in Syncrude and is building the Kearl oil-sands mining project that's scheduled to start up later this year. The Anonymous press release referred to objections in Montana to using a highway to send heavy equipment to Kearl.
"Imperial maintains a high level of security in all aspects of its operations and that includes cyber security," Rolheiser said. "We take all potential threats seriously."
-- With assistance from Andrew Mayeda in Ottawa and Rebecca Penty in Calgary.
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