Report: Government should backstop efforts to protect grid

A study from the Bipartisan Policy Center recommends incentives to persuade utility companies to comply with industry standards.

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A successful cyberattack on the nation's power grid could bring unimaginable chaos. Incident reporting from the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team indicates that the grid is a popular target among adversaries, with 59 percent of the 256 critical infrastructure attacks in 2013 involving the energy sector, particularly electrical systems.

The proliferation of network-based industrial control systems for critical infrastructure is multiplying the number of entry points and potentially creating attack opportunities for determined adversaries. Last October, for example, two engineers discovered a vulnerability in software code widely used in electricity distribution that could be used to facilitate a cyberattack.

A new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center recommending that the electric industry create a new organization to set cybersecurity requirements and that government at all levels collaborate on streamlining the process for responding to attacks. The report's authors include former National Security Agency and CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden.

The bulk power generation systems at the heart of the grid and nuclear generators in particular are subject to mandatory cybersecurity standards developed by the industry and backed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But the standards do not cover the local distribution facilities that move power to users.

The report advocates creating a new industry organization called the Institute for Electric Grid Cybersecurity. It would be modeled on the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which was established in the aftermath of the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The organization accredits and evaluates nuclear plants on safety and performance, and those ratings factor into insurance costs.

Although participation in the proposed new group would be voluntary, the federal government could offer incentives to companies that comply with industry standards -- backstopping insurance policies for liabilities incurred during cybersecurity events, for example.

The report also urges the government to clarify its plans for responding to a cyberattack on the electrical grid, including establishing a chain of command among federal agencies. There should also be a clear protocol in place for triggering a response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Currently, plans for responding to weather-related and cybersecurity disasters could come into conflict in the event of a widespread, long-term power outage. Additionally, Hurricane Sandy showed that existing processes for restoring the power grid are inadequate.

"The federal government is always at the risk of being in the way by having too many points of contact," said Paul Stockton, managing director of economic advisory firm Sonecon and a former assistant secretary for homeland defense and Americas' security affairs at the Defense Department, during a Bipartisan Policy Center event on Feb. 28. "Industry has to lead the definition of requirements so the federal government can be useful rather than being in the way."

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