The recent Sony attack over the Christmas season sparked up a debate over the danger of cyberattacks across various fields. Notably, the area of critical infrastructure is of very high concern to many. And for a good reason – not too long ago, even the Director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Michael S. Rogers, warned the Congress that China and “probably one or two other” countries have the capability of shutting down the U.S. power grid – an event that would dwarf the 2003 Northeastern blackout.
Rogers further claims that they observe these countries “attempting to steal information on how our systems are configured, the very schematics of most of our control systems, down to engineering level of detail so they can look at where are the vulnerabilities, how are they constructed, how could I get in and defeat them.”
The main problem with preparing for a cyberattack is the fact that, unlike, let’s say, nuclear weapons, you cannot observe the development of “cyberweapons.” As Andrew T. Phillips, an academic dean of the U.S. Naval Academy points out, “the development of offensive cyber weapons is very hard to actually see. It might be occurring in the room next to you, and you’ll be unlikely to know it.” Not surprisingly, it is very difficult deter a threat whose origin we don’t know.
The North American electric grid contains about 476,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, accompanied by thousands of power plants. Combine this with the fact that in 2012, there were about 198 cyberattacks on the U.S. critical infrastructure, of which 41% targeted the energy sector, and you can see why this issue is high on everyone’s list of priorities, points out Scott DePasquale of Utilidata.
Over the next five years, our grid will be turning into a “smart grid,” a modernized, automated electrical grid, capable of gathering and responding to information, including its use, supply and more. This step will present both new benefits and new challenges. According to DePasquale, however, there is some good news: “[the] demand for significant research and development efforts in this area are already resulting in significant investments being made by both the private sector and academia — and there is no doubt we have enough innovation and talent to overcome the challenge.”