Contractor pleads guilty to SCADA tampering

Experts worry that compromising such systems could lead to large-scale power outages or environmental damage

A former IT consultant for an oil and gas exploration company has pleaded guilty to tampering with the company's computer systems after he was turned down for a permanent position with the company.

Mario Azar, 28, pleaded guilty on Sept. 14 to one count of damaging computer systems and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. News of his plea was announced Wednesday by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to court records, Azar accessed Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) computer systems belonging to Pacific Energy Resources of Long Beach, California, and caused the company to lose control of its computer systems around May or June of 2008.

Only a handful of SCADA computer intrusions have been reported, but because the systems are used to control large-scale industrial systems in manufacturing plants, public utilities and the chemical industry, security experts worry that tampering with them could lead to a large-scale power outage or environmental disaster.

Azar played a role in setting up a system that helped the company communicate between its headquarters and oil platforms, and which was also used to detect leaks on the company's oil platforms. He had several user accounts on company systems, authorities said.

His actions caused thousands of dollars in damage, authorities said, but did not cause oil leaks or otherwise harm the environment.

He is due to be sentenced on Dec. 7 in United States District Court for the District of Los Angeles.

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