Where is Jack Bower when you need him The U.S. electrical grid compromized?

Spies have been reportedly been probing the U.S. electrical grid for months and planting software that could be activated at a future date, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The report notes that the spies are from China, Russia and other countries. While the news isn’t that surprising—given how vulnerable Internet infrastructure is—it is notable because electrical grids were initially thought to be somewhat hacker proof. Why? Grids run on an old mish-mash of software, which is often proprietary.

However, recent events indicate that so called SCADA systems—(Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition), which collect data from sensors and machines and send them to a centrally managed repository—are also at risk. To wit, last June Core Security detailed how SCADA systems were vulnerable. And even silly electronic road sign pranks show how SCADA systems are vulnerable.

How bad is it? According the Journal report, a SCADA attack may be a disaster waiting to happen.

The Journal notes that:

* The Chinese have attempted to map the U.S. electrical grid;
* The espionage is pervasive and not targeted to any one company or region;
* The companies in charge of the infrastructure—remember most of the U.S. networks are in private hands—never knew of the intrusions;
* Intelligence agencies discovered the intrusions;
* Water, sewer and other systems are at risk;
* And the intelligence gleaned through these intrusions will be critical in the event of war.

The good news is that the Obama administration is about to complete a cybersecurity review and Congress had approved $17 billion in funds to protect government networks under the Bush administration.

Also see: TechRepublic resources on SCADA security

However, throwing money at the problem may not help all that much.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation told its members that utilities need to step up security procedures. In the letter, Michael Assante, chief security officer of the group, wrote:

NERC is requesting that entities take a fresh, comprehensive look at their risk-based methodology and their resulting list of CAs (critical assets) with a broader perspective on the potential consequences to the entire interconnected system of not only the loss of assets that they own or control, but also the potential misuse of those assets by intelligent threat actors.

Assante outlines the grid’s conundrum:

Most of us who have spent any amount of time in the industry understand that the bulk power system is designed and operated in such a way to withstand the most severe single contingency, and in some cases multiple contingencies, without incurring significant loss of customer load or risking system instability. This engineering construct works extremely well in the operation and planning of the system to deal with expected and random unexpected events. It also works, although to a lesser extent, in a physical security world. In this traditional paradigm, fewer assets may be considered “critical” to the reliability of the bulk electric system.

But as we consider cyber security, a host of new considerations arise. Rather than considering the unexpected failure of a digital protection and control device within a substation, for example, system planners and operators will need to consider the potential for the simultaneous manipulation of all devices in the substation or, worse yet, across multiple substations. I have intentionally used the word “manipulate” here, as it is very important to consider the misuse, not just loss or denial, of a cyber asset and the resulting consequences, to accurately identify CAs under this new “cyber security” paradigm. A number of system disturbances, including those referenced in NERC’s March 30 advisory on protection system single points of failure, have resulted from similar, non-cyber-related events in the past five years, clearly showing that this type of failure can significantly “affect the reliability (and) operability of the bulk electric system,” sometimes over wide geographic areas.

Taking this one step further, we, as an industry, must also consider the effect that the loss of that substation, or an attack resulting in the concurrent loss of multiple facilities, or its malicious operation, could have on the generation connected to it.

The good news so far: It doesn’t appear that these intrusions have led to any attacks. But as grids become smarter via technology, they’re likely to be easier to hack. It’s only a matter of when, not if, the grid—and other key infrastructure—gets hacked.