Thursday, September 1, 2011

Energy Grid: Safe From Cyber Attack?

Towers carrying electrical lines in San Francisco, Calif. The smart grid that overlays power systems may be vulnerable to cyber attacks. Click to enlarge this image. Getty Images

  • The smart grid promises more efficient energy use but may be more vulnerable to attacks.
  • The nation’s electric utilities are now catching up when it comes to protecting the grid.
  • Some cyber attacks on the grid have already occurred.
Discovery News - As the 9/11 anniversary approaches, experts wonder if the United States could withstand a breach of its power network, or whether the so-called “smart grid,” which promises more efficient energy use, is more vulnerable to cyber attacks than the old one. The answers are yes and yes.

When it comes to protecting against hackers, the nation’s electric utilities are about where the financial and telecommunications industries were a decade ago, according to Andy Bochman, Energy Security Lead for IBM’s Rational division, which focuses on smart-grid security software.

Bochman says the electrical sector has been late in the game when it comes to embracing information technology that focuses on security, but is catching up.

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“We are now at a sustained back-and-forth between the powers that are trying to attack these systems, and forces aligned to defend them,” Bochman said.

While that statement may sound a bit like a sci-fi plot, the reality is that utilities across the country have seen a big increase in deliberate attacks, as well as inadvertent screw-ups that have thrown thousands of customers into the dark.

In a study released in April of electrical utilities by McAfee, the computer security firm, and the Center for Strategy and International Studies in Washington, utility industry executives from 14 nations found that things are getting worse.

DNEWS VIDEO: A hacker explains why hacking isn’t the same thing as cyber crime. 

“One of the more startling results of our research is the discovery of the constant probing and assault faced by these crucial utility networks. Some electric companies report thousands of probes every month. Our survey data lend support to anecdotal reporting that militaries in several countries have done reconnaissance and planning for cyberattacks on other nations’ power grids, mapping the underlying network infrastructure and locating vulnerabilities for future attack,” the report stated.

Could a Stuxnet-type virus, which pretty much destroyed one of Iran’s nuclear power plants, happen in the United States? Some similar, but less dangerous events, already have:

•In April 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that that cyber spies had infiltrated the U.S. electric grid and left behind software that could be used to disrupt the system. The hackers came from China, Russia and other nations and were on a fishing expedition to map out the system, the paper reported.                    More