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Analysts warn of U.S. susceptibility to cybersecurity threats, stress need for substation, transmission investment

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Investment in the development of the smart grid has sped up at such a torrid pace that many utilities are struggling to understand the legislation governing its growth, leaving the smart grid susceptible to cybersecurity attacks, according to a recently published report. 

According to the report from Intelligent Utility, many utilities are unclear about the exact requirements regarding cybersecurity. This, according to analysts, is a result of the emphasis on distribution systems by legislators instead of the transmission units.

A growing number of districts have invested in the upgrade of substation and other transmission lines, but it is critical that strict cybersecurity rules are followed when doing so, experts assert. With hacking attempts on the smart grid becoming more popular, policymakers are worried about the safety of the U.S. energy supply, as well as the possibility of a large-scale power outage and its ramifications.

IDC Energy Insights analyst Marcus Torchia said a variety of roadblocks, including a lack of communication among states and the federal government, have combined to create the confusion. Moreover, industry watchers assert that the conversion of systems to digital controls and data have substantially increased the smart grid's cybersecurity risks.

Usman Sindhu, a senior research analyst at IDC Energy Insights, echoes Torchia's assertion, and during a recent speech he told attendees that if there were any doubts about the potential for a cybersecurity attack on critical infrastructure like the smart grid, the existence of the Stuxnet virus should quickly put them to rest.

"Stuxnet is real, it's here," Sundhu said. "This is a targeted attack on a utility SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system and it captures data. It's a wake-up call."

The Stuxnet, which is believed to have been engineered by the U.S. and Israel, successfully destroyed more than 20 percent of the computer systems monitoring Iran's contested nuclear program. According to reports, the Stuxnet reached Iran by means of a USB stick, bolstering fears that a similar attack could be used against the U.S.

Ultimately, utilities should be careful when buying new equipment for the smart grid and when investing in its upgrade, analysts assert. It is essential that proper cybersecurity standards are followed, or the U.S. could suffer a similar fate to Iran, with a number of its critically important computers knocked out by a silent, cyber-killer. 

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