Nation's power grid under constant cyberattack, but Congress lax

Utility companies are making only minimum efforts to protect their facilities from persistent and unrelenting cyberattacks, said a Congressional report released Tuesday.

Utilities are complying with mandatory cybersecurity standards, but aren't going any further to protect their critical assets from online marauders, said the report by Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

"Utilities tend to be compliance-driven and audit-driven, versus doing the right thing," Vivek Shivananda, CEO of Rsam, a maker of enterprise risk management and compliance solutions, said in an interview.

"They tend to stick the letter of the law and do what has to be done to keep the lights on, but they're not necessarily taking a holistic approach what needs to be done from an overall threat and risk management perspective," Rsam.

Compliance, though, can actually be a deterrent to better security, said Phyllis Schneck, McAfee vice president and chief technology officer for the public sector. She cited several energy companies who wanted to upgrade their cyber protections by going to a whitelisting product but balked because regulations specified antivirus software.

"Companies shouldn't be faced with having to choose between being secure and being compliant," Schneck told CSO.

The Markey-Waxman report, based on information gathered through a survey containing 15 questions and sent to more than 150 utilities, found that the electric grid is the target of numerous and daily cyberattacks.

Those attacks range from phishing emails to malware infections to unfriendly probes.

[Also see: NSA's 'Perfect Citizen' power grid security plan far from perfect]

In contrast with missiles or planes which can be detected by radar, perpetrators are using Trojans, viruses, worms, and purpose-built malware that is not easily and immediately detected, explained Torsten George, vice president of worldwide marketing, products, and support for Agiliance.

"Since virtually every provider's IT network is connected to public networks in order to share production, capacity, and other information, the threat is very real," he said in an email. "While the energy industry has taken pro-active steps by establishing standards for critical infrastructure protection against cyber-attacks, implementation of these guidelines remains a challenge."

Reports of cyberattacks, however, can be misleading, said Justin W. Clarke, a security researcher with Cylance and former security specialist with Pacific Gas & Electric. "An attack could mean that someone tried to connect to my web server, and I didn't like them, or some unexpected traffic came from China or it was actually someone attacking me and trying to break into my grid," he said.

While phishing and spam emails may be considered an attack, he said, they aren't anything extraordinary even for ordinary users. "Those spam messages, in most cases, aren't a direct attack on the power grid," Clarke said. "In reality, they just want credit card numbers."

As far as cyber defense goes, it all boils down to risk management. "It's about not eliminating the risks but finding where your acceptable risk tolerance is and meeting it for your customers and your investors," he added.

"It's pretty hard to convince the PUCs and investors to pay for upgrades and increases in security budgets when someone can say, 'I don't see anything wrong. The lights are on,'" he said.

Clarke argued that not even a "Cyber Pearl Harbor" would likely change that attitude. "Even if there were some all out attack on a utility, and it took them down, the other utilities wouldn't take it to heart that it could happen to them," he said.

Read more about critical infrastructure in CSOonline's Critical Infrastructure section.

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Tags securityphysical securityPhysical Security | Critical Infrastructurepower grid

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