Keystone pipeline oil spill in South Dakota could lead to new cyber campaigns

In South Dakota, reports have emerged of an oil spill: TransCanada has announced that the Keystone pipeline it owns and operates in the state has been closed down and investigations are being carried out after 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from it on 16 November.

The leak occurred days before a Public Service Commission in neighbouring Nebraska is due to issue a decision over whether to grant a permit for a new sister pipeline called Keystone XL, a project which has been delayed for years over environmental concerns.

This is exactly the sort of incident that can quickly attract the attention of activists and hacktivists interested in various environmental, political or economic issues. The Keystone pipeline has long been the subject of sustained protest, with a wide range of heavily promoted campaigns focusing on environmental damage resulting from tar sands development, and the risks to indigenous peoples living in areas impacted by the project. Activists concerned about a broader range of issues such as climate change or the funding of the fossil fuels industry have also supported protests against the pipeline, both online and by joining in with various physical demonstrations.

While #OpGreenRights - the extremely active cyber operation that was originally launched in response to tar sands development in Canada - has been quiet for the last couple of years, there is every likelihood that this incident in South Dakota could galvanise hacktivists back into action. As news about this oil leak spreads, we may see that operation revived, or a range of new ones appearing, and they will be publicised widely on social media to garner as much support as possible for actions ranging from online petitions through to cyber attacks.

TransCanada, as owner and operator of the pipeline, is likely to be the initial target. However, other oil companies operating in Canada and the US should be aware that hacktivists could broaden their range of attacks and possibly include them in their line of fire.

Government websites – local and national – could also be targeted, as campaigners seek ways of forcing the closure the pipeline.

It is also important to understand that all companies involved in financial, construction or supply activities for the pipeline might be named in any target list. They are therefore advised to ensure that sufficient resources have been devoted to ensuring that cyber security measures to prevent against attack have been implemented and are fully up-to-date.