Protecting North America’s power grid is a thankless job. Day in and day out, the good citizens of the United States and Canada wake up with the assumption that when they get out of bed each morning and flip on the lights, the room will illuminate, the coffee pot will come to life and their mobile phone will have been fully charged. After all, we live in a modern First World society, where we have come to depend on timely and efficient power at our fingertips. In reality, that reliable electricity that we all enjoy has many people working around the clock to ensure its reliability, resiliency and security. Today’s grid operators are inundated with natural and man-made threats. As utilities tackle the monster of the moment, which is the evolving cybersecurity threat, we must not take our eyes off the more primitive threat.  

Security Threats To US Grid

Electricity is perhaps the most vital of the critical infrastructures and key resources that support our society. The mission of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is to ensure the reliability of the North American bulk power system (BPS). While electric utility companies are responsible for administering the day-to-day operations of the electric grid, regulators such as NERC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) are charged with the overall responsibility of ensuring reliability and security. NERC develops and enforces Reliability Standards, annually assesses seasonal and long?term reliability, monitors the bulk power system through system awareness, operates the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC) and educates, trains and certifies industry personnel. Normal everyday operations of the system are the responsibility of utility owners and operators.

Currently, the most significant reliability threat to the U.S. grid
is associated with squirrels and balloons, and not religiously inspired terrorists

During emergencies, NERC supports industry actions to respond, mitigate and restore the BPS to normal operation by facilitating effective information sharing and communication with and between NERC registered entities, government agencies and the media. This information is not focused on operational decision making; but instead provides utilities data, best practices and mitigation strategies to help recover from crisis. Obviously as a regulatory body, NERC must stay out of emergency response until the utility has best mitigated the threat or reliability issue.

Currently, the most significant reliability threat to the U.S. grid is associated with squirrels and balloons, and not religiously inspired terrorists. However – and more applicable to grid operators – we have recently seen noteworthy interest in disabling or destroying critical infrastructure. Coordinated attacks specifically targeting the grid are rare, but an attack by a disgruntled former employee, ideologically motivated activist, or a criminal stumbling across a “soft target”, could inflict significant damage. With an interconnected grid of over 450,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines (100 kV and higher) and over 55,000 substations (100 kV and larger), the targets of opportunity are endless.

Currently, the most significant reliability threat to the U.S. grid is associated with squirrels and balloons
An attack by a disgruntled former employee, ideologically motivated activist, or a criminal stumbling across a “soft target”, could inflict significant damage

Critical Infrastructure Protection

Critical infrastructure protection is a cyclical process incorporating prevention, detection, mitigation, response and recovery. The key to this protection is the identification of credible threats, which will assist energy companies in assessing risks and potential vulnerabilities (weaknesses) of their facilities. Once a threat has been thoroughly analyzed, it is then possible to institute preventative measures to deter, detect and delay an attack. Of course, critical infrastructure protection planning must always include mitigation, response and recovery actions in the event an attacker is successful.

While the security of the grid is a shared responsibility between the government and the private sector, the primary responsibility rests with utility owners and operators. Utility security staff have a responsibility to ensure they are able to receive and act upon criminal intelligence and be prepared to identify risks and vulnerabilities associated with security threats. Any protection program that is developed must be as efficient and cost-effective as possible, as budgets are limited and ratepayers are sensitive to wasteful spending. Effective security programs rely on risk management principles and associated tools to establish priorities, allocate budget dollars and harden infrastructure sites. Physical security protection encompasses defensive mechanisms to prevent, deter and detect physical threats of various kinds. Specifically, these measures are undertaken to protect personnel, equipment and property against anticipated threats. Properly conceived and implemented security policies, programs and technologies are essential to ensure a facility’s resistance to threats while meeting demand, reliability and performance objectives.

Unfortunately, many do not realize
the amount of reports, guidelines,
standards and assessments that
have been developed for use

Electricity Industry Physical Security Standards

Significant progress has been made in the electricity industry surrounding the issue of security. Unfortunately, many do not realize the amount of reports, guidelines, standards and assessments that have been developed for use. The industry has gone through multiple iterations of mandatory Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Standards that focus on security protections. The CIP Standards, while not perfect, may be an example for other sectors to immolate. These standards are a minimum baseline for compliance and utilities should not assume that because they have a good compliance program they are somehow immune from attack. In addition, many electric utilities undergo a sector-wide Grid Security Exercise (GridEx) every two years to hone their skills and provide updates to their security practices and policies. This is in addition to annual exercises mandated by the cyber standards. It is fair to say that the industry has been very responsive to the evolving security threat and the mandatory requirements found within CIP compliance.

As a result of the 2013 California substation attack that destroyed $15 million dollars in infrastructure, industry now has a physical security standard. This standard was created to protect the most critical transmission substations and control centers in North America. While protections vary, many utilities have upgraded their security measures to include concrete or non-scalable perimeters, robust access control, cameras, lighting and armed guards. It is highly likely that we will one day see similar standards put in place to better protect non-nuclear generation facilities, but only time will tell.

Physical security protection encompasses defensive mechanisms to prevent, deter and detect physical threats
Many utilities have upgraded security measures to include concrete perimeters, robust access control, cameras, lighting and armed guards

The piece that the industry continues to struggle with is information sharing and the ability to quickly obtain actionable threat intelligence; an issue which has been combatted head-on through the sharing of security information amongst utility partners. Large utilities with the manpower and resources to address this initiative are changing the security model from reactive to proactive. If you understand your adversary’s tactics, intent, and capabilities, you can develop strategies to combat their attacks and better plan for future threats. Better, more proactive security, can be achieved through information sharing agreements and partnerships with other utilities, regulatory agencies and intelligence partners. Many utilities do not have the dedicated resources to dissect and aggregate this data and are thus unable to react appropriately, or wind up drawing inaccurate conclusions. As a result, the electricity sector is demanding more access to actionable intelligence and threat streams. With this added intelligence, utilities can better pinpoint threats to specific systems and focus efforts on system recovery and restoration. This will undoubtedly drive better, more informed responses to security incidents.

The FBI, DHS and the DOE have made considerable strides in improving information sharing,
and giving classified access to intelligence products

Improving Information Sharing

Over the past few years, the FBI, DHS and the DOE have made considerable strides in improving information sharing and giving classified access to intelligence products such as bulletins, alerts and secret level briefings. These products have been used to mitigate threats, reduce risk and update internal security policies. Additionally, this data flow has enhanced communications between security teams, management and board members by providing authoritative threat warnings. This ultimately drives better investment strategies by more directly connecting security priorities with business risk management priorities. Unfortunately, utilities still see risks in sharing information with federal partners. Recently, the Washington Post released an article with a salacious headline falsely suggesting that the grid was hacked via Russian malware. Even after correcting the story, the question remains: who leaked the information to the Washington Post? Utilities all over the country were witnessing an information sharing failure.

We must assume that at some point in the future a North American utility will suffer from a planned and coordinated attack against electrical infrastructure. Have we looked at credible threats closely enough and did we prepare our people to respond, recover and communicate? As an industry, we will be judged and hard questions will be asked about how seriously we considered the threats and what we did to mitigate future attacks. Success will be determined by how quickly we are able to respond and the swiftness of system recovery. There is no doubt that security is an “all hands” approach by everyone involved.

Share with LinkedIn Share with Twitter Share with Facebook Share with Facebook
Download PDF version Download PDF version

Author profile

In case you missed it

Water Plant Attack Emphasizes Cyber’s Impact On Physical Security
Water Plant Attack Emphasizes Cyber’s Impact On Physical Security

At an Oldsmar, Fla., water treatment facility on Feb. 5, an operator watched a computer screen as someone remotely accessed the system monitoring the water supply and increased the amount of sodium hydroxide from 100 parts per million to 11,100 parts per million. The chemical, also known as lye, is used in small concentrations to control acidity in the water. In larger concentrations, the compound is poisonous – the same corrosive chemical used to eat away at clogged drains. The impact of cybersecurity attacks The incident is the latest example of how cybersecurity attacks can translate into real-world, physical security consequences – even deadly ones.Cybersecurity attacks on small municipal water systems have been a concern among security professionals for years. The computer system was set up to allow remote access only to authorized users. The source of the unauthorized access is unknown. However, the attacker was only in the system for 3 to 5 minutes, and an operator corrected the concentration back to 100 parts per million soon after. It would have taken a day or more for contaminated water to enter the system. In the end, the city’s water supply was not affected. There were other safeguards in place that would have prevented contaminated water from entering the city’s water supply, which serves around 15,000 residents. The remote access used for the attack was disabled pending an investigation by the FBI, Secret Service and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. On Feb. 2, a compilation of breached usernames and passwords, known as COMB for “Compilation of Many Breaches,” was leaked online. COMB contains 3.2 billion unique email/password pairs. It was later discovered that the breach included the credentials for the Oldsmar water plant. Water plant attacks feared for years Cybersecurity attacks on small municipal water systems have been a concern among security professionals for years. Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that the attempt to poison the water supply should be treated as a “matter of national security.” “The incident at the Oldsmar water treatment plant is a reminder that our nation’s critical infrastructure is continually at risk; not only from nation-state attackers, but also from malicious actors with unknown motives and goals,” comments Mieng Lim, VP of Product Management at Digital Defense Inc., a provider of vulnerability management and threat assessment solutions.The attack on Oldsmar’s water treatment system shows how critical national infrastructure is increasingly becoming a target for hackers as organizations bring systems online “Our dependency on critical infrastructure – power grids, utilities, water supplies, communications, financial services, emergency services, etc. – on a daily basis emphasizes the need to ensure the systems are defended against any adversary,” Mieng Lim adds. “Proactive security measures are crucial to safeguard critical infrastructure systems when perimeter defenses have been compromised or circumvented. We have to get back to the basics – re-evaluate and rebuild security protections from the ground up.” "This event reinforces the increasing need to authenticate not only users, but the devices and machine identities that are authorized to connect to an organization's network,” adds Chris Hickman, Chief Security Officer at digital identity security vendor Keyfactor. “If your only line of protection is user authentication, it will be compromised. It's not necessarily about who connects to the system, but what that user can access once they're inside. "If the network could have authenticated the validity of the device connecting to the network, the connection would have failed because hackers rarely have possession of authorized devices. This and other cases of hijacked user credentials can be limited or mitigated if devices are issued strong, crypto-derived, unique credentials like a digital certificate. In this case, it looks like the network had trust in the user credential but not in the validity of the device itself. Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is what can happen when zero trust is your end state, not your beginning point." “The attack on Oldsmar’s water treatment system shows how critical national infrastructure is increasingly becoming a target for hackers as organizations bring systems online for the first time as part of digital transformation projects,” says Gareth Williams, Vice President - Secure Communications & Information Systems, Thales UK. “While the move towards greater automation and connected switches and control systems brings unprecedented opportunities, it is not without risk, as anything that is brought online immediately becomes a target to be hacked.” Operational technology to mitigate attacks Williams advises organizations to approach Operational Technology as its own entity and put in place procedures that mitigate against the impact of an attack that could ultimately cost lives. This means understanding what is connected, who has access to it and what else might be at risk should that system be compromised, he says. “Once that is established, they can secure access through protocols like access management and fail-safe systems.”  “The cyberattack against the water supply in Oldsmar should come as a wakeup call,” says Saryu Nayyar, CEO, Gurucul.  “Cybersecurity professionals have been talking about infrastructure vulnerabilities for years, detailing the potential for attacks like this, and this is a near perfect example of what we have been warning about,” she says.  Although this attack was not successful, there is little doubt a skilled attacker could execute a similar infrastructure attack with more destructive results, says Nayyar. Organizations tasked with operating and protecting critical public infrastructure must assume the worst and take more serious measures to protect their environments, she advises. Fortunately, there were backup systems in place in Oldsmar. What could have been a tragedy instead became a cautionary tale. Both physical security and cybersecurity professionals should pay attention.

Expert Roundup: Healthy Buildings, Blockchain, AI, Skilled Workers, And More
Expert Roundup: Healthy Buildings, Blockchain, AI, Skilled Workers, And More

Our Expert Panel Roundtable is an opinionated group. However, for a variety of reasons, we are sometimes guilty of not publishing their musings in a timely manner. At the end of 2020, we came across several interesting comments among those that were previously unpublished. Following is a catch-all collection of those responses, addressing some of the most current and important issues in the security marketplace in 2021.

Smart Offices: How Is Mobile ID Changing The Way We Access The Office?
Smart Offices: How Is Mobile ID Changing The Way We Access The Office?

If you’re a security or facilities manager, you may already be aware of the quiet revolution that’s taking place across businesses and organizations up and down the country. By the end of 2020, 20% of all ID and access control systems featured mobile capability, and this is set to increase by a further 34% over the next three years. There’s no doubt that using a smartphone or mobile device in place of traditional credential and access control is a growing trend that’s only been sped up by the pandemic. It’s true that many businesses are still very much focused on remote working, although many are now starting to implement new-and-improved strategies that are better suited to protect the workforce moving forward. Mobile ID systems As the next normal becomes clearer, businesses will be reviewing procedures such as access control, occupancy monitoring, reducing touch points, and tracking visitors. Mobile ID systems are ideally suited to this task. But what are the key reasons for considering such a setup in 2021? But why is this new technology so well-suited to future-proof your physical access system, and why is it becoming so popular? Eradicating outdated legacy credentials Have you seen just how vulnerable outdated Proximity card technology can be? Low-frequency 125kHz cards can be cloned in a matter of seconds with the use of cheap, readily available tools. Despite their weaknesses, they are still used by a huge majority of businesses – big and small. All smartphones include two industry-standard features that make them perfect for operating a secure, contactless credential Replacing such a system with a mobile-enabled system is one of the best ways to increase security ten-fold. Thanks to a cloud-based infrastructure, mobile ID offers best-in-class security and cryptography. All smartphones include two industry-standard features that make them perfect for operating a secure, contactless credential. Bluetooth Smart and NFC (Near Field Communication) make them the best product to operate such a credential via a secure app. If you’re looking for best-in-class security in 2021, mobile access is most definitely the way forward. Removing touch points across the business Reducing touch points and the adoption of touchless facilities has become a key priority for businesses in the wake of COVID-19. Even as businesses start to return to the office and operate a home/office split, it will be imperative that unnecessary contact is kept to an absolute minimum between staff. The traditional issuance of identification and access control credentials can pose problems in this regard. Facility and security managers who are responsible for onboarding and processing ID have done the process face to face. Mobile access makes it possible to carry this process out without people coming into direct content. First, the security manager has access to a secure portal, allowing them to create, manage and edit credentials anywhere. They can upload and remotely transfer mobile ID and access control credentials directly to users’ smartphones over the air. Via the secure app, users can view and see their credentials and immediately begin using it for ID and access control by simply placing their smartphone over card readers. Enabling a more flexible way of working The way in which we work has changed for good. Even as people more people return to the office in 2021, a majority of businesses will be operating a home/office split indefinitely. This once again reinforces the need for a smarter, more adaptable onboarding system. Implementing mobile ID is the perfect way of doing this: over-the-air delivery of credentials and security data is now a given, helping businesses create the perfect balance between the home and the office. No longer do people have to come into the office for the onboarding process. Increasing convenience and user experience More often businesses are realising the value mobile ID can have for enhancing the work experience as well as security Ok, so mobile ID is the perfect way of increasing security and adapting workplaces to a post-COVID way of working. And we’ve not even touched on the most obvious advantage yet: Convenience. How many times have you forgotten your ID card? We’re sure it’s more times than you forget your smartphone. These powerful processors have become intertwined with the way we carry out tasks on a daily basis. They’re so vital that people will soon notice if they’ve forgotten it. From an employee’s perspective, mobile ID and access control is simple, convenient, and extremely user-friendly. More and more businesses are realizing the value mobile ID can have for enhancing the work experience as well as security. From the employer’s perspective, mobile ID means it’s easier for administrators to manage access and credentials. Future-proofing access control now will ensure that in the longer term, mobile ID is well worth the investment. The annual expenditure of printing ID cards and purchasing credentials can be vast, while reissuance costs can also quickly add up for larger organizations. These issues are a thing of the past for businesses using mobile ID. Mobile ID perfect tool for 2021 and beyond Until mobile ID, new and improved credentials’ main focus was on increasing security. Mobile ID not only delivers that, but it also provides a more convenient way of accessing the office in a way that’s perfectly suited to returning to the office in 2021. If there was ever a time to upgrade, now is the time. Summing up, mobile access is changing the way we access the office by: Eliminating weak links in security systems such as outdated legacy card technologies Eradicating the need for touch points across multiple areas of the workplace Enabling a smarter, more flexible approach to onboarding Increasing convenience – for both employers and employees.