On December 30, an employee at a Vermont utility was checking his Yahoo email account when an alarm indicated that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address—one associated with a Russian hacking operation. The utility reported the incident.
Only two days prior, President Obama had issued an executive order to establish sanctions against those involved in malicious cyber activities. The order declared 35 Russian government officials “persona non grata,” giving them 72 hours to leave the country, and had terminated Russian access to two Russian government-owned compounds, one in Maryland and one in New York.
As the news of the Vermont utility report broke, rumors swirled along with hyperbolic headlines. Were the Russians targeting the power grid? Was our nation under siege? The answer, ultimately, was no. Investigators have indicated that the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target Burlington Electric. Nor was the laptop actually connected to the grid.
Although this event appears to be a false alarm, intelligence officials explain that the likelihood of a catastrophic cyber-attack is far higher than most civilians are aware of. Cyber espionage has been documented since 2009. Both China and Russia have made attempts to penetrate and map US energy infrastructure and have left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system. And the number of intrusions is growing.
“Grid protection is important because everything that we depend on in modern life depends on two things: communications and power. They are the life force. Without them, nothing in society functions,” explains Bill Kaewert president and CTO of Stored Energy Systems, LLC. “They are also mutually dependent: communications can’t take place without electric power and electricity isn’t possible without communications.”
Kaewert is a member of InfraGard, an organizational partnership between the FBI and private sector that is dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the US. An InfraGuard educational folio outlines some of the potential results of widespread grid collapse—consequences such as industry shut down and life loss due to wastewater crises, healthcare failure, and famine. Without electricity, the organization explains, our society would be transported back in time to a more primitive era.
Grid protection is critical to our national security. It directly affects every aspect of civilization as we know it—from manufacturing and commerce, to power generation, public health, transportation, and defense. It is imperative that we take measures to ensure the power security of our nation’s energy arteries. The recent events involving Burlington Electric may have brought it to the media forefront, but it’s up to each of us to continue the discussion and to encourage those in power to take appropriate action.
In what ways does your organization work to protect itself from power loss resulting from grid disturbances and cyber-attack? How long could it function without the grid as a power source?