Power grid shockingly vulnerable to cyberterrorism

The News TribuneApril 21, 2014 

Alerts regarding the susceptibility of hacking have been sent to the nation’s power providers.

CAROLYN COLE/LOS ANGELES TIMES

Millions of consumers have had their personal information stolen by computer hackers, and security experts report foreign cyberattacks on military, business and governmental databases.

So it probably shouldn’t come as huge surprise that security at the nation’s power companies could be breached by hacking. What is surprising is how easy it was.

Adam Crain, owner of a small tech firm in North Carolina, says he had little trouble tapping into the computer networks used by power companies. After he notified utility security officials, alerts were sent to power operations advising them to upgrade their security software.

Anyone who imagines power grid vulnerability is isolated to the companies that Crain was able to hack into might want to check with Lloyd’s of London.

The insurance giant’s appraisers have been visiting U.S. power companies to look at how well they’re equipped to fend off cyberattacks. They found that security at about half the utilities seeking insurance was too weak for Lloyd’s to offer a policy.

It’s a potentially catastrophic problem. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commisson study shows that a coordinated attack on only nine of the nation’s 55,000 transmission substations could knock out power across the country for more than a month.

That kind of total collapse would be far more devastating to the economy than the after-effects of 9/11. Imagine no electricity during the heat of summer or depths of winter. No refrigeration, traffic lights, ATMs or electronic communication. No water would pump into most homes, and gas pumps wouldn’t work.

One problem some observers see is that some companies — especially ones with a monopoly in their region – don’t believe spending money on cybersecurity to be a priority. Companies counter that they’ve spent billions upgrading computer systems and addressing security gaps.

The nation is spending billions on military cybersecurity – as well it should. Given the vulnerability of the U.S. economy to a coordinated attack on utility companies, it’s important that equal emphasis be given to security of the power grid. The nation can’t afford the effects of even a regional electrical shutdown.

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