Grid Protection and Cybersecurity

The House of Representatives yesterday passed the “Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act” which is intended to bolster that national electric grid against terrorist attacks, cyber threats, electromagnetic pulse weapons and solar storms. The Act authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue emergency orders to protect critical electric infrastructure, and to take other measures to address current and potential vulnerabilities.

“The electric grid’s vulnerability to cyber and to other attacks is one of the single greatest threats to our national security,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), who introduced the bill.

The floor debate on the bill was a somewhat jarring mix of prudent anticipation and extravagant doomsday warnings.

“Some of us read the book ‘The Road’ [a post-apocalyptic tale by Cormac McCarthy],” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI).  “Lots of different scenarios are out there.  We need to be prepared.  This bill moves us down that road.”

“Scientists tell us that the likelihood of a severe naturally occurring geomagnetic event capable of crippling our electric grid is 100 percent,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).  “It will happen; it is just a question of when.”

“If you believe intelligence sources, our grid is already compromised,” advised Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY).

The Journal of National Security Law & Policy has just published a special issue dedicated to cybersecurity, with fifteen papers on various aspects of the issue.  From various perspectives, they address what is known about the nature of the threat, current vulnerabilities, the role of the federal government, and policy options that are under consideration.

Update: See, relatedly, this July 2009 congressional hearing volume on Securing the Modern Electric Grid from Physical and Cyber Attacks (pdf).

No Responses to “Grid Protection and Cybersecurity”

  1. George Smith June 11, 2010 at 1:58 PM #

    If you believe intelligence sources, our grid is already compromised. An April 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal cited intelligence sources who claim that the grid has already been penetrated by cyber intruders from Russia and China who are positioned to activate malicious code that could destroy portions of the grid at their command.
    The other significant threat to the grid is the threat of a physical event that could come in the form of a natural or manmade Electromagnetic Pulse, known as EMP. The potentially devastating effects of an EMP to the grid are well documented.
    During the Cold War, the U.S. government simulated the effects of EMP on our infrastructure, because of the threat of nuclear weapons, which emit an EMP after detonation. Though we may no longer fear a nuclear attack from Soviet Russia, rogue adversaries (including North Korea and Iran) possess and test high altitude missiles that could potentially cause a catastrophic pulse across the grid.
    These are but two of the significant emerging threats we face in the 21st century. Our adversaries openly discuss using these capabilities against the United States. According to its “Cyber Warfare Doctrine,” China’s military strategy is designed to achieve global “electronic dominance” by 2050, to include the capability to disrupt financial markets, military and civilian comunications capabilities, and the electric grid prior to the initiation of traditional military operations.

    That statement by Rep. Yvette Clarke is worth reprinting. It is the basic laundry list of unsupported claims and bogeymen that have populated the discussion on the subject for the past ten years.

    I know, I’ve had to read them all. Over and over.

    It’s worth emphasizing the US government has never identified a single attack on the power grid by an alleged enemy. Not one.

    On the other hand, it has — on more than one occasion — relied on security vendors and rumor mongers to float unverifiable stories that the lights have been turned out in other countries by cyberattack.

    Additionally, neither the US government nor, indeed, any other entity in the United States, has identified one case of an electromagnetic weapon being used against the US power grid. Indeed, it also has no proof that even the worst behaved nations in our list of bete noirs have actually set aside nuclear weapons for a notional atmospheric electromagnetic assault on the continent.

    In this congressional testimony, these threats are described as “emerging.”

    That’s correct. But only in the sense that they have been described as “emerging” for over fifteen years, at least. If such threats “emerge” any more slowly we will surely have to change the definition of “emerging” to “disappearing” or “receding.”

    On the other hand, there is a significant selfish interest in the continuous propagation of this news.

    The entitities which have been inappropriately relied upon by the US government for the shaping of the story and the description of the threat are, coincidentally, those most likely to benefit financially from increased spending on it.

    When I wrote a paper for the National Academy of Sciences’ Issues in Science & Technology I described this phenomenon. That was in 1994. And the meme that enemy nations, even lone wolves, would strive to turn off the power through cyberattack was already common.

    I pointed out then that when the people in charge of threat assessment were also those in position to profit from the shape of the assessment, it constituted a conflict of interest. It still does.

    Cybersecurity is an important topic. It deserves a continual place in the national discourse. Ghost stories, however, don’t.

    Neither do statements which make comparisons to apocalyptic pieces of fiction. If any American wants to view a tale about the United States having the power turned off, they can generally see such things on TV at least once a week. But it’s only entertainment.

    I would guide interested readers to my (now rather large) archive of stories on the Cult of Cyberwar and this subject — here.

  2. TD June 12, 2010 at 9:38 AM #

    I have not seen this legislation in detail. If it really does give the Energy Dept. new powers to exert control over the grid, then it should be resisted strongly. Just what we need–a bunch of bureaucrats with the power to turn the lights out.

    To me this looks like the usual procedure–cook up a crisis in order to increase government power. My opinion is that there is more to fear from the fools we have elected and appointed than from the highly unlikely EMP event.

  3. Jonesy June 12, 2010 at 4:49 PM #

    This isn’t about control Gov over the grid but hardening it against attack. There are a dozen or so major nodes in the grid that if were compromised would spell disaster for the US. And guess what? the lead times to manufacture the key equiment is about a year and none of it is made in the US. An EMP or a major solar event could put us back into the early 1800′s in a blink. Everything is dependent on electricity, and all of our technology artificially sustains our current population levels. Anything with an integrated circuit is gone. What happens when trucks cant move food to your grocery stores every other day? They have about 2 days woh of food on the shelves. When the city’s electric pumps stop working and water can’t be pumped into you house? The social implications are devastating. Read William Forstchen’s “One Second After” for realistic details on a post EMP USA. Truly scary. Our government has wasted way more money on stimulus bills and bailouts that dont help anyone. The cost to harden the grid against this type of threat costs very little in comparison. But because no one can see or even understand EMP very well, no one pays any attention. Hopefuly this Act changes that.

  4. George Smith June 13, 2010 at 5:54 PM #

    An EMP or a major solar event could put us back into the early 1800’s in a blink. Everything is dependent on electricity, and all of our technology artificially sustains our current population levels. Anything with an integrated circuit is gone. What happens when trucks cant move food to your grocery stores every other day? They have about 2 days woh of food on the shelves. When the city’s electric pumps stop working and water can’t be pumped into you house? The social implications are devastating. Read William Forstchen’s “One Second After” for realistic details on a post EMP USA.

    You’ve repeated the script perfectly, right down to blurbing for favorite author of Coast to Coast and Newt Gingrich.

  5. Hand of Shadows June 15, 2010 at 2:28 PM #

    “It’s worth emphasizing the US government has never identified a single attack on the power grid by an alleged enemy. Not one.”

    There was never a recorded attack on Pearl Harbor before 1941 nor was there a recorded suicide attack on a skyscraper with commercial airliners before 9/11. Not to forget that we know for a fact that the Earth has been hit by an electromagnetic storm before (on September 1-2, 1859). We leave ourselves open to attack sooner or later someone will make an attack. And if man is not involved, nature WILL hit us with a electomagnetic storm sooner if not later.

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