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U.S. electric industry slow to fight growing threat of cyber attack

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Monday, August 27, 2012

The world of cyber security was forever changed when Stuxnet made its first appearance in summer 2010, introducing businesses to a highly complex computer worm that had the power to disrupt Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Although the worm was considered a win, and potentially set the nuclear program back as much as two years, the effectiveness of it grabbed the attention of U.S. utilities, who saw how easily a worm could disrupt the nation's critical infrastructure, including its electrical network.

The flood of malicious software could be used by cyber attackers to disrupt computer operations right under the nose of computer technicians monitoring the grid. As Stuxnet showed, these sophisticated worms have the ability to go unreported by even experienced technicians.

Jim Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Stuxnet or any of the derivative worms that have come from the virus could easily be used to send electrical generators into overload, rendering them useless.

Lewis cited one example of such an occurrence in which the Idaho National Library was attacked in 2007. Researchers working at the facility rewrote code used for the industrial control system for the generator, giving it commands to destroy itself. Not long after, the workers reported smoke was billowing from the generator after a major coupling fell off. Cyber security expert Michael Assante spoke with National Public Radio about the incident, which was closely analyzed.

"The Department of Homeland Security has done reviews of a few critical infrastructure companies, and every one has had vulnerabilities," Lewis said. "You know, all the data points to an unbounded problem."

Lewis added that by unbounded he did not mean such an attack would take out the entire electric grid, but conceded it would affect power distribution to tens of millions of people.

Jim Buccigross, vice president-energy practice for 8760 Inc., said that a cyber attack would likely come from a highly advanced nation, rather than rogue cyber terrorism groups.

"If you can build nuclear bombs," he said of North Korea, "you can have a thousand people banging on a computer trying to figure out how to hack into the grid."

Staying on top of these attacks requires an operating system that regularly provides patches for worms and viruses. SUBNET, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, ensures utilities receive these patches by working closely with the OS giant. 

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