Is it possible that a remote cyber attack from Russia caused a pump to fail at an Illinois water utility? That’s the theory put forward by cyber security experts cited in numerous media reports.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are said to be investigating the matter, but so far have not confirmed the reports.

According to the Washington Post blog Checkpoint Washington, this cyber attack, if confirmed, would be the first to cause physical damage:

Companies and government agencies that rely on the Internet have for years been routine targets of hackers, but most incidents have resulted from attempts to steal information or interrupt the functioning of Web sites. The incident in Springfield, Ill., would mark a departure because it apparently caused physical destruction.”

An article in London’s Daily Telegraph cites cyber security experts saying that the reported attack highlights the risk that hackers can break into what is known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems.

These are highly specialized computer systems that control critical infrastructure – from water treatment facilities to nuclear reactors, to dams and switches on train lines.

A PC World blog post has more on the potential threat to SCADA systems.

As noted in an I.I.I. paper on terrorism risk published earlier this year, U.S. intelligence officials have suspected a major cyber terrorism attack is increasingly possible.