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Rapid development of the smart grid fuels cyber security concerns

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Friday, August 12, 2011

The U.S. has been a global leader in its adoption of cutting edge technologies over the past few decades. However, in the wake of the global recession, the U.S. has lagged behind other countries, especially as it works to create a comprehensive plan for the development of the smart grid. As officials work to upgrade the nation's electric grid, many cyber security concerns have arisen, according to a published report.

According to a report from AOL Energy News, the U.S. federal government has invested more than $8 billion over the past two years alone as utilities and other power providers have worked to upgrade their power supply networks. With many utilities implementing smart meters in their customers' homes as they work to create a more efficacious power grid, industry experts have voiced concerns regarding the dearth of smart grid cyber security protocols.

Critical infrastructure protection (CIP) laws were enacted to protect "systems or assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security," according to the Department of Homeland Security.

CIP regulations are exceedingly important to the nation's long-term security interests, but many cyber security experts contend that they are in dire need of updates after years of neglect. The Obama Administration, along with many state officials, have echoed this sentiment, and the government and private businesses are working to improve smart grid security measures.

Nonetheless, the development of the smart grid is an exceedingly complex and far-reaching project, with the nation's power grid stretching across varying regions. The U.S. power supply network is divided among different regions that are controlled by Independent System Operators (ISO), further complicating legislative efforts as the interplay between state and federal powers come into play.

Some states have moved to establish their own smart grid cyber security laws as the federal government has been slow to develop an overarching set of guidelines. The California Public Utilities Commission, for example, recently issued a bill that would standardize privacy measures, as well as price and usage data security, for all its major electrical utilities, according to the news provider.

For its part, the Obama Administration unveiled a rough guideline earlier in the summer that offers a broad overview of how federal officials hope the smart grid will be developed over the coming decade. While the report was, in some ways, short on details, officials stressed how utterly important it remains for utilities and other power providers to protect their computer networks.

Officials from some of the country's largest utilities backed the administration's move, stressing that they are already often the subject of cyber security attacks from foreign governments and rogue hackers.

Tom Fanning, the chief executive of Southern Co., which is one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., recently said that the U.S. power supply network is exceedingly vulnerable to hackers. In fact, he affirms that Southern Co., along with many other major utilities, is often attacked by cyber criminals, as was previously reported here.

Experts worry that the rapid development of the U.S. electric grid has left its cyber defenses weak.

"There's a lot of hand-wringing going on at the federal level, especially in Congress, because there's concern that nobody really owns the security of the electric grid," Verizon Business managing principal for energy security Ernie Hayden says. "Nobody is in charge of electric grid security holistically." 

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