Monday, October 19, 2015

Will ISIS Hack the U. S. Power Grid?

In a meeting of electric-power providers last week, U. S. law enforcement officials revealed that Islamic State operatives have tried to hack into parts of the American power grid, so far without success.  But the mere fact that they're trying has some grim implications.

One of the officials, Caitlin Durkovich, is assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U. S. Department of Homeland Security.  She refused to provide specific details of the attacks, but an FBI official said so far that the attacks are characterized by "low capability." 

For some time now, it's been obvious that cyberwarfare may play an increasing role in future conflicts.  Perhaps the most significant successful attack up to now was mounted by a team of U. S. and Israeli experts in what came to be known as Stuxnet.  The attack was aimed at Iran's nuclear-material centrifuges and allegedly disabled many of them in 2010 before operators figured out what was going on. 

That attack was aimed at one specific facility, and the attackers had access to abundant information on the particular equipment involved.  Doing something similar to a significant part of the U. S. power grid would be a harder proposition for several reasons.

A Stuxnet-style attack on one generator, or even an entire plant, might temporarily  damage that plant and take it out of commission.  But the power grid is designed to deal with just such occurrences without major disruptions.  At any given time, a certain number of generators are offline for repairs or maintenance, and every so often a problem will cause one or more generators to trip out unexpectedly.  Unless the loss of capacity is very large or happens at a critical high-demand time (say on the hottest day of summer), the system absorbs the loss and reroutes power from other sources to make up the difference, often with no noticeable interruption to customers. 

So in order to produce a large-scale blackout that would do some good from a terrorism point of view, a different approach would be needed. 

The most vulnerable parts of the power grid from a hacking point of view are the network control systems themselves—the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) devices and communications systems that tell system operators (both human and electronic) what the status of the grid is, and open and close the big high-voltage switches that route the energy.  A simultaneous order to a lot of circuit breakers to open up all across a large grid would throw the whole system into chaos, tripping other automatic breakers everywhere and necessitating a total shutdown and resynchronization, which could take hours or days—even longer if widespread mechanical damage occurred, which is possible. 

But doing that sort of attack would be very hard.  I am no power-grid expert, but I do know that long before the Internet came along, power utilities constructed their own special-purpose communication networks that carried the switch-command instructions, often by means of microwave relays or dedicated cables.  Originally, these specialized networks were entirely independent of the Internet because there was no such thing yet, and so were perfectly secure from Internet-based hacking.  Utilities tend not to throw anything away that still works, so my suspicion is that a good bit of network-control data still gets carried on these physically isolated communications links.  For a set of hackers halfway around the world to get into those specialized communications systems would require either amazing hacking abilities, or inside information, or most likely both. 

This is not to say that it's impossible.  But the job is orders of magnitude harder than disabling one uniform set of machines in one location.  As reports on the power-grid hacking attempts pointed out, the U. S. grid is a hodge-podge of widely different equipment, systems, protocols, hardware, and software.  A hack that might take out a power plant in Hackensack would probably be useless on a plant in Houston.  So to mount a coordinated attack that would create a politically significant amount of trouble would be a monumental undertaking—so hard that evil guys with limited resources may decide that some other type of troublemaking would be a better use of their time.

Does that mean we can just sit back and enjoy the fact that the Islamic State hackers don't know what they're doing?  Not necessarily.  Hackers come in all flavors, and as the Internet has played an increasing role in the day-to-day operation of electric utilities, those same firms have had to deal with the accompanying hazards of malevolent cyberattacks from who knows where.  So the fact that Islamic State hackers are going after the power grid is not exactly a surprise.

While the recent revelations have led to some calls for increased government oversight of cybersecurity for the power grid, the industry so far seems to have done a fairly good job at policing itself.  A report in USA Today back in March of 2015 said that the North American Electrical Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is the non-profit industry-sponsored security-standard enforcer, has slacked off on the number of penalties and fines it has assessed on its members in recent years.  But the president of NERC says this doesn't necessarily mean that his organization is getting lazy—it could just as well be that utilities are following the rules better.

Rules or no rules, the danger that foreign and domestic terrorist organizations could cause massive power blackouts in the U. S. is real.  And constant vigilance on the part of the utility operators is needed to prevent these attacks from getting anywhere.  Fortunately, the present structure of the grid makes it a particularly difficult target.  But that doesn't mean it couldn't ever happen.

Sources:  I referred to reports of the disclosures about cyberattacks on utility infrastructures carried by CNN on Oct. 15, 2015 at, and by the Washington Examiner at  USA Today carried an in-depth study of the issue by Steve Reilly on Mar. 24, 2015 at I blogged on Stuxnet on July 24, 2011 and July 2, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Distributed energy generation and distribution is the best answer to threat of grid attacks.