The Washington Post reported Friday ominous news that sounded like the opening scenes of War Games, Hackers, Die Hard Four (One of the Really Bad Ones) or any other Hollywood sinister-hackers-shut-down-society thriller: “A code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials.”
Vermont’s Democratic lawmakers offered intensely angry, some might even say alarmist responses. Governor Peter Shumlin warned “one of the world’s leading thugs, Vladimir Putin, has been attempting to hack our electric grid.” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy painted a picture of a powerless state, succumbing to a brutal winter: ““This is beyond hackers having electronic joy rides — this is now about trying to access utilities to potentially manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter. That is a direct threat to Vermont and we do not take it lightly.” Rep. Peter Welch called the Russian hacking “systemic, relentless, predatory.”
But eleven hours later, additional statements from the Burlington Electric Department and the Department of Homeland Security painted a much less incendiary portrait. For starters, the computer that had the malware was an employee’s laptop, and it was never connected to the Vermont electrical grid itself. Vermont had not been specifically targeted, and the Post’s original headline — “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, U.S. officials say” – was false.
The statement from Burlington Electric Department General Manager Neale F. Lunderville not-so-subtly urges the media covering this news to get their facts straight:
We acted quickly to scan all computers in our system for the malware signature. We detected suspicious Internet traffic in a single Burlington Electric Department computer not connected to our organization’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding.
There is no indication that either our electric grid or customer information has been compromised. Media reports stating that Burlington Electric was hacked or that the electric grid was breached are false.
Cybersecurity is an issue that Burlington Electric and all U.S. utilities take very seriously. We focus every day to protect the integrity of the electric grid and the personal information of our valued customers.
Federal officials have indicated that this specific type of Internet traffic also has been observed elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric. It’s unfortunate that an official or officials improperly shared inaccurate information with one media outlet, leading to multiple inaccurate reports around the country.
Prominent media critics keep insisting that inaccurate reports from prominent institutions are completely different from the made-up “fake news” found on Facebook and other social media networks. But do news consumers see them as completely different? The net effect is the same: something that is not true gets communicated far and wide, and the correct information is spread on a much smaller scale.
A new poll found 52 percent of Democrats believe Russia “tampered with the vote tallies” to make Trump the winner in the presidential race. There is no evidence of this. When the big-name media institutions and elected Democratic officials twist the news to the point of falsehood, it’s not surprising that so many of the rank-and-file would believe something that isn’t true.