Study: Grid security needs to be a team sport

By Iren Moroz shutterstock ID 566799760 

Electrical grid providers and the federal government should develop collaborative response templates to handle cyber and physical attacks on power supply infrastructure, according to a new study by a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and grid expert.

In the event of a suspected cyber or physical attack on the electrical infrastructure, the White House should formally declare a "grid security emergency," followed by three phases of attack status, from "imminent attack," to "attack is occurring" to "restoration," said the study released on Sept. 4 by Paul Stockton, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, HSAC member and Sonecon managing director.

The four phases, he said, will activate specific plans for collaborative cyber and physical defenses developed by grid providers and the federal government.

The phased approach looks to build on the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, which amended the decades-old Federal Power Act  to give the Energy Department secretary new authorities in a grid security emergency. This included the authority to order power companies to protect and restore grid reliability when attacks on their systems are "imminent" or under way.

Even though power companies are rapidly developing resiliency to cyber and physical attacks, operational coordination between power companies and the federal government in the face of a cyberattack are missing, according to the study. The report recommended "template" contingency plans, collaboratively developed by power companies and federal government.

In the event of a cyberattack aimed at crippling or shutting down the electrical grid, the study said those jointly developed operational contingency plans could keep the lights on at military bases, hospitals and other critical facilities.

The study cautioned power companies developing their own cyber defenses against "hacking back" against attackers. It said that action is best left to the government in the event of a grid security emergency. Even if power companies could make a retaliatory cyber strike against grid attackers, the study said they might not make much of a dent, or at least not on the same scale, as a retaliatory cyber strike by the government.

"If power companies gained legal authority to fight back against adversaries, their technical capacity to do so would be dwarfed by the capabilities possessed by U.S.  Cyber Command  and other U.S. government organizations."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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