COMMENTARY

A call for critical thinking about securing our electric grid

The electric power grid has emerged as one of the most critical elements of our nation’s critical infrastructure, and efforts to create an interoperable Smart Grid with two-way communications and power flow are highlighting the need for security. However, there also is a need for more critical thinking about the grid’s vulnerability, according to at least one expert. It might not be as fragile as it appears.

Terry Michalske, director of energy and security systems at Sandia National Laboratories, expressed the conventional wisdom at a recent conference on cybersecurity policy hosted in Washington by the Stevens Institute of Technology.

“There is probably no better way to cut the legs out from under a modern society than by interrupting the power grid,” Michalske said. As an example, he noted that Hurricane Rita, in 2005, shut down 20 percent of the nation's oil refining capability -- not by damaging the refineries, but by causing widespread power outages.

Martin Libicki of the Rand Corp. agreed on the grid’s significance. “It’s fairly clear that the electric power sector would be a most critical target for attackers,” he said.

But Libicki, the author of “Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar,” added that “the power sector may be a tough nut to crack,” for four reasons.

First, it is a distributed system operated by some 3,000 companies. It is cooperative and interconnected, but it is not homogenous. Any significant deliberate disruption would have to successfully target tens or hundreds of companies.

Second, the industry is obsessed with resiliency and experience with many natural disasters has taught it how to restore power quickly.

Third, the Internet is not intrinsic to the industry’s business model. It got along fine without it for years and could roll back connectivity as needed and still function effectively.

Finally, “we really don’t know how vulnerable the electric power community is,” Libicki said. Reports of kids who have almost taken over control of dams or shut down power stations turn out upon closer examination to be inaccurate anecdotes, he said. Even the intelligence community “is more of a hindrance than a help.” Widespread reports last year that the grid’s infrastructure was riddled with rogue code were the result of unconfirmed speculation by intelligence agencies, he said.

It is easy to create scenarios in which a nation state attacks our grid to cripple the country, Libicki said. “I would maintain that’s probably the stupidest thing they could do.” Such a strategic attack would likely result in an immediate military response by the United States.

Of course this could change with the development of a Smart Grid in which wide-area communications and more sensor and control elements would be integrated into the system. No one would suggest that significant security is not required in any critical infrastructure, no matter how resilient. All of this has to be taken into account when the Smart Grid is designed, Michalske said.

“Security isn’t free,” he said. “It’s a very expensive add-on to the system,” and adding it on at the end is even more expensive than putting it in at the design stage. So the level of security should be tailored from the beginning to the appropriate levels of risk.

This does not mean blindly reacting to a worst-case scenario. “A great deal of skepticism is called for here,” Libicki said. “It ain’t necessarily so. Unfortunately, it ain’t necessarily not so, either.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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