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Saturday, September 23, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: A Smarter Grid to Help Protect Public Utilities from Cyberattacks

The worst thing public utility companies can do is try to enhance cybersecurity protocols with antiquated, ineffective technology.

The electricity grid is one of the most complex and critical systems in existence. It transmits power from public utility companies to the end-user, the customer, to warm their homes and keep the lights on in schools. Its importance makes it a service that millions of people need nonstop, making it and municipal utilities tempting targets for cyber attackers. Cyber attackers looking to breach the power grid know that they can cause extraordinary damage to the energy sector by targeting smaller, more vulnerable electricity providers.

The world saw firsthand the damage cyberattacks can inflict on the utility sector in 2019 with the “LookBack” malware attack. Sending fraudulent emails that appeared to come from the National Council of Examiners, cyber attackers were able to deploy and execute the attack via emails that contained malicious macros. A potentially more damaging cyberattack on America’s electric utilities was by threat actor “Xenotime,” which carried out the infamous 2017 Trisis/Triton malware attack in Saudi Arabia; it was thwarted before it could be carried out after an SIS triggered a shutdown of some industrial systems, which experts believe hackers caused by accident.

And, of course, it’s hard to forget the recent debilitating ransomware attack on America’s Colonial Pipeline Company, which shuttered pipeline system operations. The 5,500-mile-long pipeline system that carries three million barrels of fuel each day between Texas and New York was forced to shut down for several days. It was such a significant event that President Biden declared a state of emergency after it was deemed a national security threat. In the end, the company paid DarkSide hackers to get the decryption key, which enabled their IT team to regain control of their systems.

These were not the first cyberattack plots against America’s power sector, and certainly will not be the last. So, how can smaller municipalities and public utility companies protect themselves from threats that can shutter operations and cause disruptions to millions of citizens? By leveraging advanced tech solutions. Essentially, fighting technology with technology.

The worst thing public utility companies can do is try to enhance cybersecurity protocols with antiquated, ineffective technology. To protect themselves and the grid from increasingly sophisticated attacks, utilities must have a cohesive solution in place to safeguard the critical infrastructure that collectively provides energy to millions each day. The nightmare scenario for municipal utilities is a significant cyberattack that shutters or at least disrupts operations and leaves countless customers without access to efficient power and clean water.

Many cannot comprehend the devastating impacts a shutdown of public utilities and the power grid generates. Earlier this year, 20 million Texans learned firsthand the debilitating consequences when Winter Storm Uri left the majority of the state without power and water for nearly a week, cost the state’s economy $80 billion to $130 billion, and left nearly 200 dead. At the peak of the crisis, there were 4.3 million reports of power outages across the state as the power grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) essentially failed.

While cyberattacks didn’t cause the Texas ice storm grid disruptions, the incident demonstrates the crippling effects of an energy-sector shutdown. Smaller municipal utilities face the greatest risk as they are more vulnerable because cybercriminals know they are less likely to have a coordinated and fully staffed cybersecurity operation. The combination of no cybersecurity training, limited budgets, and fewer security tools leaves these utility companies vulnerable to potential malware attacks, which puts their data and fragile framework in jeopardy. By leveraging advanced technologies that offer critical infrastructure protection, public utilities can significantly reduce the risk of a major attack against the power grid.

New digital tools are available to help municipal utilities develop reliable, effective cybersecurity programs and remain fully compliant with federal regulations. Cybersecurity organizations must work closely with compliance organizations to ensure true protection. An end-to-end smart grid technology solution offers a streamlined way to manage cybersecurity monitoring and compliance requirements. There are multiple ways a next-gen cybersecurity platform can provide grid operators with a game-changing approach to identifying and protecting critical assets.

Real-Time Cyber Data Collection
All critical cyber data is stored in one secure location and is consistent, connected, complete, and primed for scrutiny. Having fully interpreted data and valuable insights provides utilities with a single solution to advance, simplify, and improve existing cybersecurity and monitoring requirements.

Cybersecurity Threat Monitoring
As technology improves and becomes more advanced, it also allows for easier access to critical data for cyber attackers. The internet of things (IoT) and cloud-based options strengthen the collection and coordination of data and promote greater efficiency and safety. They also create multiple new points of entry for cyber attackers to access and destroy.

By utilizing a platform that keeps cybersecurity and compliance in sync, there is shared knowledge between organizations, which lessens the probability of an attack. An AI-fueled automation analytics and reporting platform is built for rapid deployment, making it efficient and easy to implement into an organization’s already existing operations.

Irreproachable CIP management
Unified end-to-end security and compliance management ensure consistent CIP management while providing more efficient and accessible records, greater access to critical information, and reduced data errors, missed assignments, or due dates.

Time Savings for Utilities
A next-gen cybersecurity tech solution focuses on unified security and compliance to ensure minimal risk of misunderstanding or miscommunication between organizations, less need for work to be redone, and fewer questions about completion. It also provides critical infrastructure protection to improve cybersecurity and audit-ready results.

Public utility operators and power grid leaders understand how critical it is to protect the daily operations of the vital services they provide. To ensure better protection of the grid – and the people it serves – utilities must leverage new, innovative tools offered by wholistic, end-to-end cybersecurity and software solutions. As information and security systems become ever more connected, cyberthreats will  continue to increase. Utilities must take action to protect their critical utility services and defeat modern cybersecurity threats.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].

Robert Nawy
Robert Nawy is a co-founder, Chairman and CEO of IPKeys Power Partners. Robert is a founding member and on the Board of Directors of the Advanced Energy Management Alliance (AEMA) and is an active Board Member of the Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR) Alliance. With an MBA, CPA, and Civil Engineering credentials from Rutgers University, Robert oversees all strategic, tactical, and operational functions of IPKeys. His expertise includes raising capital, mergers and acquisitions, strategic partnership and solutions implementation, and the delivery of evolving IP technologies across sectors.

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