Could a Retro Approach Work to Protect the Electricity Grid Against Hackers?

With economic loss estimates stemming from a blackout reaching a trillion dollars in the most damaging situations, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has taken steps to protect the grid from cyber threats and hackers.1 To prepare for the ongoing cyber-security threat, the NREL uses a “test bed” which mimics power utility systems and allows friendly hackers to identify issues within the system.2 Once vulnerability in the test bed is discovered, those findings are shared with the utility industry to increase overall infrastructure protection.3

U.S. lawmakers and power companies are worried of a possible threat as all of the systems become more interconnected. As a solution to this problem, a group of bipartisan lawmakers are calling for a less sophisticated approach, simply installing analog technology so that separate grids are isolated, leaving hackers without full access.4 This concept arose when a cyber-attack on the Ukrainian power grid left almost 250,000 people without power.5 Experts noted that the blackout would have been worse, but because of the older technology the Ukraine uses; the hackers did not have access to the entire grid. The hackers could only hack what they could access.

United States Senator Angus King (I-ME) commented that, “The United States is one of the most technologically-advanced countries in the world, which also means we’re one of the most technologically-vulnerable countries in the world,”.6 King is leading a group of bi-partisan lawmakers who want to pass a bill to examine the ways to replace a currently advanced grid with more manual procedures, as to make it more difficult for a hacker to achieve full access.7 King said that with a more manual system in place hackers would need to, “actually physically touch the equipment, thereby making cyber-attacks much more difficult,”.8 The other senators involved in the passage of this bill are Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), all are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.9

It’s no surprise that lawmakers see this threat as a pressing issue. Lloyds of London estimates that a successful attack on the U.S. energy grid could cause damage ranging from $200 billion to a $1 trillion.10

The bill, which is in the process of being proposed, would be titled the “Securing Energy Infrastructure Act”.11 The act includes many key provisions which will allow the U.S. government to explore ways in which it can make the energy grid less vulnerable to cyber-security threats.12

This retroactive approach to a modern problem is an original solution that may just work. As discoveries are made and the costs and benefits are analyzed, it will be interesting to see if this old time approach will be an effective tool in combating the pressing threat of cyber-terrorism. At first glance, it is an appealing prospect. I think it would probably be more worthwhile to strengthen our existing system, than to dismantle the current one. This bill may come up with realistic solutions to a pressing problem, but at the same time it could discourage improvement and efficiency.

  1. Robert Walton, NREL Tackles Grid Security as Grid Turns to Smart Technology, UtilityDive.com (June 20, 2016), http://www.utilitydive.com/news/nrel-tackles-grid-security-as-grid-grid-turns-to-smart-technology/421189
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Robert Walton, Lawmakers Propose Retro Approach to Secure the Grid Against Hackers, UtilityDive.com (June 8, 2016), http://www.utilitydive.com/news/lawmakers-propose-retro-approach-to-secure-the-grid-against-hackers/420532/
  5. Id.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Securing Energy Infrastructure Act, S. 3018, 114th Cong. (2016).
  12. Id.

Author: James McGann

James McGann graduated from the University of Maryland in 2013 with a B.A. in Government and Politics. Now a 2L at Rutgers Law School, he is a member of the Computer and Technology Law Journal. James enjoys different forms of exercise and outdoor activities