Inside the Ring: U.S. grid threatened

An Energy Department-sponsored study of the U.S. electrical power grid publicly identifies numerous vulnerabilities to cyberattacks by nations or terrorists, including hacking that could cause widespread power outages.

“Impacts identified in the failure scenarios include loss of power, equipment damage, human casualties, revenue loss, violations of customer privacy, and loss of public confidence,” states the 269-page report “Electric Sector Failure Scenarios and Impact Analyses.”

The report was funded by the Energy Department and published in September by the National Electric Sector Cybersecurity Organization Resource, a group of industry and academic specialists focused on improving cybersecurity for networks in the power grid.

The highly technical report outlines more than 40 ways foreign intelligence services or other malicious hackers could break into the networks used to control the distribution of electrical power.

One threat scenario states that a catastrophic power outage could be caused by an insider with access to electrical control networks. By sending a computer order for mass “remote disconnects” in the power grid, the cutoffs would produce a cascading power failure over a large geographical area.

The report is designed to give both industry and government a comprehensive assessment of the weaknesses within electronic power grid networks. It also recommends ways to prevent cyberattacks, including the use of stronger passwords and better network access controls.

“Authorized personnel with legitimate access can inflict significant damage on a system either intentionally or by mistake,” the report said. “The impact for this scenario could range from a minor system being off-line to a widespread outage of unknown duration.”

Among those who pose threats are employees or contractors who may be bribed by foreign spy agencies, former employees seeking revenge, deranged people and cyber gangs.

Nation-state and terrororism threats identified in the report include China, North Korea, Cuba, al Qaeda, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taibi and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

Domestically, the report warned that cyberattacks could be carried out by lone wolf terrorists, ecoterrorists and U.S. separatist groups and militias.

The U.S. electronic power grid is a regional system of three networks in the 48 continental states: The Eastern Interconnected System, the Western Interconnected System, and the Texas Interconnected System.

The report was first disclosed by smartgridnews.com on Oct. 17.

CHINESE SABER RATTLING

China dispatched five warships to the disputed Senkaku islands last week in the latest show of force, as part of its dispute with Japan over control of the uninhabited islands.

U.S. officials said the Chinese naval incursion Oct. 23 was part of stepped up saber-rattling by Beijing in the year since Tokyo purchased three of the five islands from private owners on Oct. 11, 2012.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

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