FERC clamps down on security

Energy industry must patch the cybergaps that could allow hackers to attack facilities

More scrutiny may come

Under draft rules published by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, power plants would be required to:

  • 1. Submit copies of the plant owner or operator’s plans to fix each cybersecurity and information system vulnerability.

  • 2. Identify the short- and long-term steps they have taken or will take to mitigate those vulnerabilities and the projected dates for completing those steps.

  • 3. Explain how those plans and steps safeguard the facility.

  • 4. Explain, if necessary, why the plant owner or operator believes the plant does not need to take steps to mitigate a vulnerability.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

In September last year, someone leaked a Homeland Security Department demonstration video that showed a power company’s worst nightmare: computer hackers accessing a power plant’s control systems, overloading a turbine fan and causing the entire facility to shut down. After that incident, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission knew it had to do more to safeguard the country’s nuclear and electrical power plants.

The energy industry has voluntarily safeguarded its facilities from cyberattacks. However, the video showing a cyberattack prompted FERC and the North American Energy Reliability Corp. (NERC), which represents the energy industry, to create industrywide cybersecurity reporting standards. The new standards  will require energy companies to report their cybersecurity and system vulnerabilities and their plans for fixing them.

 “Let’s find out what folks have done and whether or not they have done what’s necessary,” said Joe McClellan, director of FERC’s reliability division.

McClellan said FERC is trying to close loopholes left open by cybersecurity reporting protocols, which simply ask companies for a status report on fixing vulnerabilities. The commission will ask NERC to enforce new reporting standards at 1,150 energy facilities at a cost of $1.21 million to industry.

The FERC standards will take effect after the Office of Management and Budget approves them.

NERC expanded its critical infrastructure protection plan in 2006 to include information technology vulnerabilities. The modified plan focused on IT training, systems security, incident reporting and recovery planning. Since then, NERC has been revising that plan to take into account industry comments and IT security standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST approved those changes Jan. 17.

“Cybersecurity requirements will be applied to functions and companies where they have never before been applied,” said David Whiteley, executive vice president at NERC, in testimony after the hacking video became public during a House Homeland Security Committee Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology Subcommittee hearing.

NERC is revising its critical infrastructure plan to address real-time cybersecurity monitoring, Whiteley said. According to current procedures, when data acquisition employees at a power plant identify a cybersecurity problem, they alert headquarters employees. Officials at headquarters then decide what to do about the problem and relay their decisions to plant employees.

NERC won’t require power plant owners and operators to comply with the revised infrastructure protection plan until fiscal 2009, which FERC officials say is not soon enough.

Matthew Davis, vice president of consulting at security consulting firm SecureState, expressed uncertainty about how the energy industry will receive FERC’s new reporting requirements. Many companies cannot provide the reporting details that FERC wants, he said. 

Some power plants will need to install firewalls, perform software and hardware patching, and conduct serious testing, Davis said. “It’s a really tough spot to be in.” 

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