Former CIA hacker says Colonial will likely pay ransom after cyberattack on pipeline exposes flaws

North Carolina

CLAYTON, N.C. (WNCN) – There was a sense of relief for Cassie Lee when she was able to get to the front of a line at a gas pump on Tuesday. People came out in droves to refuel their cars after a ransomware attack shut down the Colonial Pipeline.

That relief was short-lived, though. Lee’s tank was nearly empty and she only managed to get $3.17 worth of gas before the pump shut off. It was an emotional and desperate moment as she was trying to get from Clayton to Wilmington.

“Where this could get really ugly is if Colonial decides not to pay the ransom, the attackers get more aggressive, and we now have a fuel shortage for months instead of days.” said Dr. Eric Cole, former CIA hacker and Cybersecurity Commissioner to the Obama Administration.

An eastern-European based criminal organization called Darkside took credit for the cyberattack.

Every day, the pipeline sends billions of gas, heating oil, diesel, and jet fuel to its terminal in Greensboro. That’s where most in central North Carolina get their supply. There was concern after 9/11 of the location’s vulnerability to terrorists. Cole said that potential threat was addressed, but this cyberattack that shut down the pipeline wasn’t addressed enough.

“This to me is a big wake-up call that while we’re concerned about physical terrorists, cyber threats and cyber terrorists are far more impactful and easier for people to perform against the United States,” Cole said.

By late Tuesday morning, truckers were hitching up and heading southeast from the fuel terminal in Selma. Several drivers said they were headed to Wilmington to load up on fuel coming by sea.

Cole believes Colonial will pay the ransom within days as it’s much cheaper than re-building its cyber system.

“They have to decide, do we pay a million dollars or $40 million. And unfortunately, because that’s such a big range, most companies from a business standpoint, unfortunately, say it’s more economical to pay the ransom than to suffer the consequences,” he said.

That doesn’t mean this is the end of it.

“As a security professional, I’m very very concerned that this is one of many attacks that we’re going to start seeing over the next several months as we head through 2021,” Cole said.

It’s also a reminder that, just as with toilet paper during the pandemic, everyone has to do their own part to control it. As one man buying gas put it, “there wouldn’t be a gas shortage if people didn’t panic.”

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