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More Focus Is Needed on Internet Security for the Power Grid

More Focus Is Needed on Internet Security for the Power Grid

NOVEMBER 21, 2012

Millions of people were without power for a week or more after Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of the United States at the end of October. Companies, from local businesses to the headquarters of multinational corporations, were crippled by the loss of power in lower Manhattan and the other boroughs, as well as in large areas of New Jersey and Long Island.

These power outages were the result of a natural disaster, but the effects of a widespread power outage are similar, regardless of the cause. Besides the toll on health and possible loss of life, economic losses include lost productivity from employees unable to work, lost sales, and damages to client relationships and business reputations because of disruptions in service.

Guidepost has long had expertise in designing physical security to protect the various components that make up the power grid. Now, because of the modern-day threat of malicious computer hackers, additional attention has to be focused on the internet security aspects of the grid. Hurricane Sandy was devastating, but it still did not cause a blackout for the entire Northeast, or the nation. A sophisticated internet attack targeting our energy infrastructure has the potential to do just that.

Our energy grid is largely run by computer equipment for the monitoring and distribution of electricity. Many parts of the system are connected to the public internet so that they can communicate and report back things like usage data, abnormalities, etc. For various reasons, including deregulation and the drive to cut costs, many of the computer components used are off-the-shelf networking products made by popular manufacturers. Instead of the proprietary (closed) systems used in the past, these modern systems are vulnerable to any new security hole that is discovered.

This dramatically lowers the barriers to entry for a potential terrorist or other malicious hacker who wishes to disrupt the country’s power grid. In the past, a potential criminal would not have access to the proprietary systems used by a utility company. Now, when a utility’s infrastructure is running on the very popular and well-documented Windows or Linux operating systems, they can become vulnerable to all types of hackers, from amateur to highly sophisticated. Recently it was discovered that a control application program that is widely-used in industrial facilities has a backdoor that allows any user to connect to the system over the internet and initiate commands without any authentication whatsoever. This would allow anyone to completely shut down any part of a power plant that used this software. At the same time, foreign countries are increasingly developing their “cyber warfare” capabilities, specifically training hackers to be able to infiltrate and disrupt an enemy’s computer systems, including those used by the banking sector and energy utilities.

Utilities need to plan accordingly to protect our nation’s power grid from internet-based attacks. This includes developing and implementing a complete security program, which includes educating employees on everything from basic security efforts to more complex measures. Even the most secure system can easily be compromised if an administrator shares their password with the wrong person. Internet firewalls need to be properly configured, and critical infrastructure components should be sealed off completely from the public internet whenever possible. Guidepost Solutions has the expertise in computer security to help companies secure their critical systems.

About the author


Kenneth Citarella is managing director for the Investigations and Cyber Forensics practice at Guidepost Solutions LLC.  He has more than 30 years of experience investigating and prosecuting white collar crime and computer crime. Kenneth can be reached at