Author and famed broadcast journalist Ted Koppel's new bestseller warns of a 'likely' nationwide and devastating blackout of the US grid at the hands of hackers, but some government and utility industry officials disagree.

US Department of Homeland Security and utility industry officials dispute the premise in a new book that a cyberattack is likely to knock out the US power grid.

Broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, whose bestseller “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath" has triggered hot debate within the ICS/SCADA industry on the potential scope of a cyberattack on the US grid, said in a webcast today that the networked grid could be abused in a global conflict.

The Internet “in addition to its many virtues … is in effect a weapon of mass destruction,” he said. “Unlike any weapons system that’s ever existed before. In the past, weapons of mass destruction were only usable and obtainable by governments,” but the Internet can put such power in the hands of terrorist groups like ISIS, he said.

But taking down the grid is far from a no-brainer, he said. “It’s incredibly complex” to pull off, he said. “Thus far, the capability is only in the hands of a few nation-states, like Russia and China and possibly Iran.”

Koppel was interviewed in a taped portion of a Cisco Systems-sponsored webcast today by Energy Times. Panelists from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US Department of Energy (DOE), the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), Lincoln Electric, and Cisco Systems, participated in a live discussion about threats to the US grid.

“The grid is a very resilient piece of infrastructure with significant diversity in equipment and configurations within and across companies in the electricity sector,” said Caitlin Durkovich, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at DHS’s national protection and program’s directorate. “At the end of the day, a nationwide blackout from a cyber attack is implausible.”

Most sites have manual backup options, she said. “An operator can click a switch and make the fixes necessary to divert the load,” she said.

Gerry Cauley, president and CEO of NERC, concurred. “We remain concerned, but it’s extremely unlikely,” he said. Not only would be it be technically difficult to pull off, but the grid is capable of going into manual mode and off computer- and network-based support, he said.

In the webcast interview, Koppel said his government and industry sources for the book concur that an attack on the power grid is highly probable, and that the nation is not prepared for the aftermath of such a massive incident. Meanwhile, the feds don’t have sufficient oversight, either, he said.

“The [power] industry has been very resistant to what it regards as a return to a federal regulation of their industry,” Koppel said. The feds can’t dictate protections to the grid operators, he said, but only propose them via NERC. “The NERC membership has to vote on whether they are going to accept this regulation, and it takes a two-third’s majority” to do so, he said.

“It’s sort of a bizarre situation,” Koppel said.

“Everything else – communications, transportation, banking:  they are all helpless without electricity,” he said. “The power grid … should be an enormous national concern. The fact that the federal government does not have authority to impose regulations on the power industry is a vulnerability. It’s a problem.”

But NERC’s Cauley says the FERC can direct the NERC to adopt standards for physical or cyber protections. NERC, which is a private nonprofit that provides a regulatory oversight role for the power industry, aims to get consensus for standards it adopts to ensure actual implementation, he said.

FERC can in fact direct NERC to adopt a standard, he said. “We are certified by them on a periodic basis.”

Meanwhile, DHS currently has certified some 1,700 private-sector individuals overall with security clearances to receive kinetic and cyber threat intelligence from the government, according to Durkovich.

“Most of our partners [here] really need is to understand tactics and techniques used by our adversaries. They don’t need to know sources and methods. It’s easier for us to get information out in a timely fashion across the … country if we can do it at the unclassified level,” she said.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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