Spike In Power Grid Attacks Likely In Next 12 Months

'Window of opportunity for malicious intent' as energy firms roll out smart-grid pilot programs

Attacks against the power grid are likely to rise and intensify during the next 12 months as smart grid research and pilot projects advance, according to utility security experts and a recently published report that analyzes threats to critical infrastructure.

The so-called Project Grey Goose Report on Critical Infrastructure points to state and/or non-state sponsored hackers from the Russian Federation of Independent States, Turkey, and China as the main threats to targeting and hacking into energy providers and other critical infrastructure networks.

Jeffrey Carr, principal investigator for Project Grey Goose and founder and CEO of GreyLogic, says he and other researchers working on the report initially focused on answering the question of whether there have been any successful cyberattacks on the utilities. "Some companies say there's never been a successful attack against the grid, but that's not true," he says. "There have been at least 120 instances" of successful attacks, some of which are documented in the report and date back to 2001.

Several utility security experts agree that utility security administrators will have their hands full during the next year, as the transition from isolated, closed energy-generation and transmission networks to IP-based and wireless ones begins to take shape in the form of pilot smart grid projects.

Doug Preece, senior manager for smart energy services at Capgemini, says he expects an uptick in hacking of smart grid devices during the next 12 months as more smart-grid pilot projects are launched at energy firms. "The penetration of these devices is going to dramatically increase in numbers in the next 12 months, and then it's going to plateau," Preece says. "There's a window of opportunity for malicious intent."

"This is a watershed event ... these have always been separated from all other information networks, and lot of their security relied on isolation," Preece says. "A closed communications network was difficult to breach."

The smart grid's distributed approach exposes these networks and systems, he notes, and they will be most vulnerable in the early phases as they get up and running. After that, however, these new networks and devices should have better security since they will have security built in as well as stronger regulations that call for security, he says. "Their communications will be predominantly wireless, and it's assumed they will be sniffed, penetrated, hacked, and service will be denied ... So we're designing mitigation techniques and security to address these things," he says.

The best-case scenario of attack would be someone poking around the network for vulnerabilities so he can cut his energy bill, for example, says Eric Knapp, vice president of technical marketing for NitroSecurity. "The worst-case scenario would be an attacker compromising [the smart grid] and then controlling the distribution of power," he says.

The worry is that smart grid vendors and energy firms are rushing to deploy the new technologies without properly securing them, utility security experts say. Patricia Titus, chief information security officer for Unisys Federal Systems and former CISO for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), says energy firms need to "take a breath" and determine whether adopting smart grid technology will exacerbate or solve problems.

And it's not that existing SCADA systems are all insulated from attack, even with their private lines. "When you look at the architecture in the company, you see a cloud touching that SCADA network ... to the corporate network so they can get emails on the same system as SCADA. You've just inherited vulnerabilities right there," Titus says.

The Grey Goose report calls out Russia, Turkish hackers, and China as the top threats to the power grid. "I perceive Russia as the most serious threat [of the three] and China last," says report author Carr. That's because hackers from China are more likely to hack for espionage purposes than to disrupt the grid, he says. He points to a group of SCADA hackers out of Turkey, which in 2003 breached the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station science research facility.

But the smart grid won't make the power grid more vulnerable than ever -- it just makes it more open to vulnerabilities, according to Capgemini's Preece.

"The [traditional] power grid today is extremely vulnerable. I could turn off the lights in a major metropolitan area, and they would not come back on for a very long time. You don't need a computer -- just something you could buy at your local hardware store," he says. "Putting a smart meter on everyone's home doesn't make the grid more vulnerable. It just opens up another window that requires a higher level of sophistication [to breach]." Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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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