Pro­tect the na­tion’s elec­tric grid from at­tack

The Day - - OPINION - By PAUL STEIDLER Paul Steidler is a se­nior fel­low with the Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute, a pub­lic pol­icy think tank in Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia. He wrote this for In­sid­

I mag­ine if dur­ing the re­cent po­lar vortex cold spell, when large sec­tions of the na­tion's power grid were al­ready op­er­at­ing un­der se­vere duress, a cy­ber­at­tack was launched that shut off power.

To­day, many bad ac­tors are plot­ting and ca­pa­ble of such de­struc­tion. And it will take a con­certed push by util­i­ties, util­ity reg­u­la­tors and the na­tional se­cu­rity com­mu­nity to thwart these acts.

Dan Coats, di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence, was clear about these dan­gers in a Jan. 29 re­port and re­lated tes­ti­mony to the Sen­ate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence: “China has the abil­ity to launch cy­ber at­tacks that cause lo­cal­ized, tem­po­rary dis­rup­tive ef­fects on crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture — such as dis­rup­tion of a nat­u­ral gas pipe­line for days to weeks — in the Unites States.”

Coats also said, “Rus­sia has the abil­ity to ex­e­cute cy­ber at­tacks in the United States that gen­er­ate lo­cal­ized, tem­po­rary dis­rup­tive ef­fects on crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture — such as dis­rupt­ing an elec­tri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion net­work for at least a few hours.”

In Novem­ber, En­ergy Sec­re­tary Rick Perry was even more blunt about the pend­ing dan­gers, say­ing, “The threat of cy­ber­at­tacks is grow­ing, it's metas­ta­siz­ing. The warn­ing lights are blink­ing and they're blink­ing red.”

En­ergy in­dus­try lead­ers agree with Perry and Coats. Ac­cord­ing to a KPMG Sur­vey re­leased in Novem­ber, nearly half the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers of power and util­ity com­pa­nies think a cy­ber­at­tack on their busi­ness is a question of “when” and not “if.”

Much of the elec­tric grid is now run via the in­ter­net. The vast num­ber of elec­tronic de­vices, switches and cir­cuit break­ers that reg­u­late the grid and en­sure that it op­er­ates re­li­ably and ef­fi­ciently also present a big chal­lenge. Hack­ers are look­ing for the weak­est links in the com­plex chain that is Amer­ica's elec­tric grid.

Power out­ages are not merely in­con­ve­niences. They are pub­lic safety crises. The el­derly and the sick are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble, un­able to find medicines in the dark or to suf­fi­ciently heat or cool their homes. A study by Johns Hop­kins found that the North­east black­out of 2003, where 50 mil­lion lost power, caused 87 deaths.

To ad­dress the mul­ti­ple, com­plex and ever-chang­ing cy­ber­at­tack threats, govern­ment and in­dus­try must work to­gether. There have been some en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ments in this re­gard re­cently.

Na­tional Cy­ber Se­cu­rity Strat­egy: In Septem­ber the White House re­leased a Na­tional Cy­ber Strat­egy, the first of its kind in 15 years, to clar­ify the roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of fed­eral agen­cies.

Sim­u­lated Ex­er­cises: In Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, the Depart­ment of En­ergy con­ducted Lib­erty Eclipse, which looked at cop­ing with a cy­ber­at­tack af­ter a se­vere black­out. This builds on widescale tests in­volv­ing 450 or­ga­ni­za­tions al­ready be­ing un­der­taken by the North Amer­i­can Elec­tric Re­li­a­bil­ity Cor­po­ra­tion.

Ex­panded In­for­ma­tion Shar­ing is start­ing to oc­cur: It is im­per­a­tive that util­i­ties share in­for­ma­tion so that all can be ready to thwart at­tacks.

The chal­lenges in pro­tect­ing the grid will grow, par­tic­u­larly as more tech­nol­ogy is im­ple­mented to con­trol power re­motely and man­age other as­pects of elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion. It will re­quire vig­i­lance by lo­cal util­i­ties, in­for­ma­tion shar­ing, na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and re­lent­less mon­i­tor­ing of our en­e­mies.

Com­pla­cency al­low­ing a cat­a­strophic cy­ber­at­tack on the grid, must sim­ply not hap­pen.

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